If there are silver linings to be gleaned by living through a pandemic, having learned to place more value on our time could very well be one of them. As daily life ground to a halt through lockdown after lockdown, millions of us found ourselves with more time on our hands. Though many jobs were lost and businesses shuttered, these stark conditions also gave many people a chance to reevaluate their priorities.
In a November 2021 article for Wired, Kathryn Hymes notes that people are now “changing employers, ‘downshifting’ on the career ladder, or taking time away from the workforce altogether. With new clarity and savings from the COVID era, some workers have stepped back from precarious frontline jobs made brutally hard in the pandemic. Others report forgoing opportunities for money or status in exchange for greater flexibility and self-determination.” As a result, people are quitting their jobs in record numbers.
According to the US Labor Department, an unprecedented 4 million people resigned from their jobs in April 2021 alone, leading observers to dub this period the Great Resignation. This description, Hymes suggests, misses the point. “Taken on its surface, the Great Resignation foregrounds the language of job status, but misses a parallel, arguably bigger story: the radical realignment of values that is fueling people to confront and remake their relationship to life at home, with their families, with their friends, and in their lives outside of labor.”
“Leisure is doing what you would like to do, what rests the body, the mind, the heart, or which allows you the time to do for yourself something over and above what you do for the community.” –Benjamin Creme, The Art of Living
At another such historical moment nearly a century ago—when millions of people were suddenly jobless due to the Great Depression—the philosopher Bertrand Russell penned In Praise of Idleness, outlining the necessity for meaningful leisure for all human beings and challenging our long-held cultural assumption that a person’s value can only be measured by his or her economic productivity.
In a 2020 New Statesman article that notes today’s relevance of Russell’s argument, Max Hayward, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sheffield, explains: “Russell believed that we don’t only need to reform the economic system in which some are worked to the bone while others suffer jobless destitution, we also need to challenge the cultural ethic that teaches us to value ourselves in proportion to our capacity for ‘economically productive labor.’ Human beings are more than just workers. We need to learn how to value idleness.”
Hayward points out that with GDP as our standard measure for success, “we must deem one society a relative failure if its citizens earn on average £1,000 a year less than its neighbors, even if they have more leisure, play more sports, take more walks, read more books, listen to more music, and paint more pictures.” But, he says, this thinking dooms us: “The society that Russell imagines—one that invests in meaningful idleness—is truly revolutionary—not just because its economic structures have been reformed, but because it has changed the way it understands, and values, itself.”
In his book The Art of Living, Benjamin Creme—the chief source of information about the return to the everyday world of Maitreya, the World Teacher—defines leisure as a God-given quality: “[Leisure is] doing what you innately want to do, which is to be creative; it is the opportunity to be creative.” He explains creative activity, coming from the soul, as the nature of life and says that the art of living is in fact creative living, which entails all aspects of life. This is why, he says, leisure is essential. Yet as a result of today’s stressful living conditions, Creme adds, “Most people are so devitalized by repetitive work processes, by poor conditions, by the sheer deadness and sameness of their activities day by day, that creativity is almost the last thing you could expect.”
In addition, as a result of widespread poverty and social injustice, mass numbers of people around the planet live deeply unfulfilled lives, dedicated only to earning enough to survive, therefore finding no opportunity for leisure. Creme argues that it is this enforced poverty that prevents the demonstration of the true inner spiritual nature of humanity. The solution is the sharing of the world’s resources so that every person has access to the goods that enable one to meet their basic needs.
“The immediate need is to transform work processes to free from mechanical drudgery the countless millions who now know no other meaning in their daily work… “Let me take you into a world where no man lacks—where no two days are alike, where the joy of Brotherhood manifests through all men.” (Maitreya, from Message No.3)
Under Maitreya’s inspiration, Creme explains, humanity itself will begin to see itself as one family, and make the required changes to create a saner and more just world for all. Among Maitreya’s recommendations will be a shift in social priorities so that adequate food, housing, clothing, education, and medical care become universal rights.
“Education for leisure,” writes Creme, “will release in people the possibility for the development of their inner skills, talents, and potential in a way which could hardly be envisaged at present.” What might such education look like? To Bertrand Russell, it should be one of education’s primary goals to equip the population with the necessary abilities, knowledge, and habits to enjoy creative leisure. Max Hayward suggests this means reform: “[A]ccess to higher education would need to be greatly expanded, while university and school curricula should place as much emphasis on creative arts and the pursuit of pure curiosity as on employable skills.”
In these times of unprecedented global crisis, the freeing of human beings by the enabling of more leisure has the potential to promote a renaissance—the flourishing of human creativity that could truly transform our world.