James Thinks

writing is a kind of thinking

Lately I've been thinking about how I spend my time.

Call it a mid-life crisis or an effect of working from home and having a more flexible routine. Whatever the reason, how we spend our time seems like a fundamental question of personal philosophy.

To try and make sense of this, I roughly categorise my activities, with a lot of overlap, as follows.

How much time should I spend on each of these? What is a healthy balance?

There's a compromise to be struck between simple happiness and life satisfaction, or meaning. I've read that a good example is having children - this typically makes parents unhappy through sleepless nights, ill health and inevitable worries, but in the long run adds a great deal of purpose to their lives.

I recognise that I'm privileged to even be able to make these kinds of choices rather than simply surviving. Having time for personal projects or being able to campaign for anything is a luxury that many cannot afford. No doubt a lot of people would say they've only got time to work, eat, sleep and do the bare minimum of entertainment to stay sane. The fact that I'm fortunate seems like even more reason to think carefully about how I spend my time.

Boredom and escapism

Everyone will have their own idea of what their healthy balance is. Some will focus on doing as little work as possible to make time for their own entertainment. When I became disillusioned with my first job, I had a lot of sympathy for this view. Work didn't feel worthwhile; often it was utterly boring. I felt I had to use my time outside of work to compensate for that boredom, just to make life feel somewhat enjoyable. I wasn't looking for any grand purpose in my life, simply to have as much fun as I could. I wasn't taking drugs or engaging in other risky behaviour for the rush of it, but you might call it "lightweight hedonism" or simply escapism. I imagine that a lot of people in dull or stressful jobs do the same.

With some luck and hard work a lot of people can afford a pretty happy life, in spite of a dull job. I'm lucky to have found more fulfilling work in recent years, but I still wouldn't say I'm passionate about work.

Despair at the state of the world

Meanwhile, most of us will have noticed that not everyone is so lucky. There are a lot of important things going wrong in the world. Child labour, racism, the rights to protest being eroded, a health service under acute pressure, an ongoing mental health crisis, air pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change and the global injustices it brings.

As you look into any of those issues and discover the many, often related, problems in the world, it can feel overwhelming. I'm sure many people want to help resolve those problems, but find trying to do so is frustrating. Where should we start? Are we making progress? These broad question are valid, but can prevent focus and lead to despair.

This despair is even encouraged by some. Climate science is generally accepted; doubting it is no longer mainstream. As a result former climate deniers have had to switch tactics. Those who would like to slow or prevent constructive action, say by reducing the use of fossil fuels, now focus on spreading doomism, apathy and inaction.

I heard an analogy about learned helplessness which I think is instructive. When elephants are kept to help with work, they start training them from their early years. This includes tethering the elephant to a metal stake in the ground. The young elephant soon learns it cannot shift this stake, so it gives up trying and accepts being restrained. As the elephant grows to adulthood it becomes incredibly strong and gains the strength to easily uproot the stake and go where it pleases, but it never does. It has learned that it is helpless and cannot free itself. This is not unlike our human feelings of helplessness in the face of social and political problems.

In the face of despair, a more constructive response combines hope and action.

Even those who don't fully buy into the despair may be tempted to look away, to minimise the issues, get on with their lives, and resort to "soft denial". That's understandable, given the scale of the problems. To some extent I think everyone engages in soft denial at times. It's hard to constantly stare into the harshest realities of the world without becoming exhausted or burning out. When progress is hard to measure it's easy to feel helpless and disillusioned.

No regrets?

As I've grown older I've become disillusioned with the disillusionment.

To put it another way, I've recognised that the disillusionment itself is a big part of the problem. Those who would like to maintain the status quo benefit from our cynicism and despair. Saying, "It's hopeless" can be an excuse for inaction. Giving up and falling back into escapism can feel comfortable. Author Rebecca Solnit talks about "snatching the teddy bear of despair from the loving arms of the left". For those who are comfortable, she argues, despair should not be embraced as a means to stop trying. This is not to be confused with occasionally looking away, to rest your eyes. Relaxation and entertainment are part of self-care - important ways to recharge and regenerate, but in excess, they become a tempting distraction from dealing with important issues.

Banksy image showing girl with bird. Reads: If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit.

When Donald Trump had been in office for three years, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked what she thought the greatest threat to democracy was. The crowd chuckled knowingly, hoping she'd say something scathing about the president. Instead she answered "A public that doesn't care about protecting the rights we have".

It is easier not to care, or to assume that someone else will right the wrongs and keep us safe. That feels to me like a dangerous complacency in the face of the issues I described above.

So, I feel I want something more than escapism, more than distraction from the stress and worry of the world. Sure, I can enjoy various forms of entertainment and have a pretty happy life. I can't help wondering though, that if I spend all my free time in films, music, sports and games, am I really part of the world at all? Those things are nice and sometimes reflect reality, but they're not reality. Even things like mortgages and DIY don't feel ultimately important. They're another kind of game. If I spend most of my time in escapism or simply on the treadmill of capitalism, in what sense does my existence matter? Wouldn't I be just another consumer, earning money and spending money?

Perhaps that's overly simplistic.

Of course there is already more to my life than this. I'm lucky to have great family and friends and I can do my best to appreciate them and make their lives better. There is meaning in that for me, without doubt.

Enough?

I've started wondering whether I'm an active part of the world or merely an observer? Am I changing the world, however slightly, for the better or passively existing in it for a while?

I want to leave the world a better place than I found it. Perhaps this is an overreach of the Boy Scout Rule which I think most people apply to tidying up the campsite or code, but it feels like a very reasonable thing to apply to my life as a whole. Could my whole life make the world a better place on average?

It's an appealing idea.

The trouble is that it's pretty difficult to live by. Due to the way our society is arranged, it is hard for those of us living in the rich world to live ethically and not to do harm to others. That harm might not be obvious. The global economy hides much of it from view. Some of those harmed may be on the other side of the world working in a sweatshop or suffering from climate breakdown due to decades of excessive consumption in the rich world. If I want to think of myself as, overall, a good person then I need to make a positive difference in some way.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

Even if I can't be certain that the difference I make will be enough, whatever that means, I feel that I need to try, simply because it is the right thing to do. Of course I want the best outcomes and to feel that I've made a difference, but getting too attached to outcomes for these huge issues can be a real drain on energy. I think it's better to stay focused on doing the right things, as far as I can.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

I sometimes wonder how I'll feel about my life looking back on it in later years. Will I feel I spent my time well or regret what I didn't do? In particular, I don't know how well humanity will address climate change, arguably the greatest threat modern humans have ever faced. Whatever happens, I want to feel I did what I could, when I still could.

Perhaps it's over-ambitious of me to wonder if there could be more to my life than this? But I also ask myself "Why shouldn't I make a difference?". I may not be sure how much difference I can make, how much effort I'll feel able to give, but doing something is better than doing nothing.

As everyone from Hillel the Elder to John F. Kennedy to Emma Watson have said,

"If not me, who? If not now, when?"

Mugshot of James cycling on a road in the sunshine.

James Bradbury

I write about whatever is on my mind. I do so mostly to help me think more clearly. If other people find it interesting that's good too. :-)

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The fact that I'm fortunate seems like even more reason to think carefully about how I spend my time.

In the face of despair, a more constructive response combines hope and action.

Disillusionment itself is a big part of the problem.

I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.