Saturday, November 22, 2008


We have this really pernicious idea, my generation and the ones following it, that I think it's high time we stamped out. That idea is the concept of "free time." I am more and more convinced that there is no such thing as free time.

When my mother was a child, she worked in the fields to earn money for her school clothes and other necessities. She began doing this when she was still very young. On a number of occasions, she talked about how hard she worked and the aches and pains she felt at the end of the day, and she always ended by saying that she wanted an easier life for her own children. I think that's a very widespread, and in fact almost universal wish: nearly all parents who have hard work in their backgrounds aspire to provide their children with an easier life. Furthermore, I think a lot of folks identify with that wish, think it's a noble one, and are grateful to parents who worked toward that goal. And I'm not even prepared to say it's a bad goal. But it does tuck one stubborn distortion into its beneficiaries' worldview: the notion of free time.

There is simply no such thing as free time. All leisure time is earned. All discretionary time is the result of work. We have time to relax, to reflect, to take care of our needs, after we have addressed our responsibilities. We do not possess such time as our entitlement.

Misunderstandings about that are one of the big anchors of the time sickness that too many college students have. Yes, you have to have down time and leisure time to stay healthy; I freely admit that. But another requirement of good health is healthy food, made from healthy ingredients, and no one's giving that away either. Try shopping in the produce section, especially the organic half of it, and then just walking out the door, telling the store manager "I need this to be healthy, so I'm entitled to take it for the asking." I doubt that'll go over well.

Many folks my age and younger grew up with a measure of unstructured time that would've dazzled our parents and grandparents when they were young. And because we grew up immersed in that reality, we simply accepted it as a feature, an element of the scene, a constant, just like sunrise and sunset and oxygen. Time to relax was simply part of the world picture. But it wasn't! Through much of this nation's history, and throughout much of the rest of the world, children are expected to pitch in and work to contribute to the household pool of resources. In our culture, today, we've made a collective decision that children are largely exempt from that shared responsibility. But that doesn't mean the leisure time bubbles up from some magic, inexhaustible spring. It just means the parents have to work that much harder. The kids' playtime isn't free time; it's a gift, a provision, from the parents' hard work. And when the children leave the parents' protection, the free time goes with it. But because we're so accustomed to it, that's not immediately evident. And for many kids, college is the first shock, the first wave of struggle with that changed reality.

Responsibilities have to be tackled, carried out, and completed, and then there is earned time, which is not at all the same as free time. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and there ain't no such thing as free time, and the "I feel overloaded, I feel stretched, I desperately want time to relax, so I'll simply demand it and claim that I'm owed it" argument is flawed, false-to-fact and childish. It's also, I regret to say, a stubbornly rooted collective belief, not only among college students, but among a whole lot of the young adults of my acquaintance. What would be required to dislodge the belief is unclear to me, but I sure wish I knew.

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