A Gift to Our Spirit: On Wasting Time

By Rebecca FosterJune 20, 2018

A Gift to Our Spirit: On Wasting Time

The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl
In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

THERE’S A MOUNTAIN of self-help books out there giving time management strategies and urging us to take charge of our days and wring every drop of usefulness out of them. But what if we abandoned this obsession with what we can achieve with our time, and instead gave ourselves over, at least for a while, to daydreaming and idleness? Would we find that we were freer to be creative and to rearrange our lives into healthier patterns? Some recent books suggest that we should change our idea of what constitutes using time wisely.

Patricia Hampl first came to prominence with A Romantic Education (1981), based on a trip behind the Iron Curtain to explore her Czech heritage. Other autobiographical works tackled her Catholic upbringing, the workings of memory, the sublime, and — in her most conventional memoir, The Florist’s Daughter (2007) — the death of her parents. But Hampl has published poetry, too, and the poet’s delight in lyricism and free association is in evidence in her latest work, The Art of the Wasted Day (2018).

It’s a pensive, pleasantly meandering book that blends memoir with travel and biographical information about some of Hampl’s exemplars of solitary, introspective living, and it begins, quite literally, with daydreaming. Hampl remembers lazy 1950s summer days when she would lie on the grass under the beechnut tree to escape family drama and the background angst of world war. “The green filigree patterns the sky, light filters my face,” and time stands still to spotlight for her what really matters: “It’s not that you make things up — you notice things.” Even as a child, Hampl recalls believing that the stillness and the observation were vital: “Really, life is — this. It’s a float, my body a cloud drifting along, effortless but aware.” Yet she was also aware early on that such apparent idleness would earn her the world’s disapproval; the family’s housekeeper saw her as “[a] girl up to no good, lazing my days away […] A time-waster.”

By contrast, adult life, Hampl notes, is overwhelmingly deadline-driven — “Life conceived — and lived — as a to-do list.” While she recognizes her luck in having a full and purposeful life of teaching and writing, she looks to historical role models to learn how to break away from the self-imposed frenzy and find fulfillment in quiet moments. Her hero, to whom she keeps looping around in this book, is Michel de Montaigne, “the first modern daydreamer.” His essays were snapshots of the human spirit. “He loafs and invites his soul,” Hampl writes, here adapting the words of Walt Whitman, another determined dreamer.

“Montaigne felt compelled,” Hampl notes, “though nothing had happened to him, to write books about it. Sit there and describe. And because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, the world lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued, comes to life.” It’s the same conviction that animates autofiction by the likes of Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard: the magic is in the day-to-day details. Hampl also affirms the value of living a life of orderly solitude, of the freedom arising from discipline. In this she is backed up not only by Gregor Mendel, the Austrian genetics pioneer who lived as a monk, but also by two obscure figures from 18th-century history, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who fled Ireland to live together as friends and lovers in remote Wales. Almost like secular nuns, “the Ladies of Llangollen” made a virtue of solitary pastoral living, so foreign to our modern sensibilities.

It is never far from Hampl’s mind that the harried, duty-driven life approaches one final deadline. Indeed, the sudden death of her husband, whom she often wistfully addresses in the second person in this book, brought mortality home like never before. But two recent British memoirists suggest that the helplessness of a terminal diagnosis can be accompanied by a surprising opening up of time. In her book of autobiographical essays, On Smaller Dogs and Larger Life Questions (2018), Kate Figes sees behind her progressive limitations an almost miraculous enlargement of time:

I have limited energy and patience sooner than I would have liked. But in the widening spaces, opening up between all these anti-cancer activities, when there is no need to rush just to be able to get through everything I had to achieve each day, there is a glorious sense of freedom, of empty space. The mind can wander back over the past and then think about nothing more taxing than what I might like for lunch.

Likewise, Rebecca Loncraine, who died of recurrent breast cancer in September 2016, found that time lived in the shadow of death decelerated in agonizing but revelatory ways. In her posthumous memoir about taking flying lessons after her treatment, Skybound: A Journey in Flight (2018), she reflects, “Illness totally blew apart my previous sense of time […] Moments waiting silently for the results of a scan seemed like a painful forever, and each long, slow day crawling through the side effects of chemotherapy was a giant frozen clock face. But I could take advantage of this slowing down, too” — to sit by the fire with her parents, watch the dog sleep, and spy on bird behavior out the window. Such “ordinary things were transformed by my focused attention into moments of wonder, inside which I found enormous resilience.”

It seems ironic that these writers, who literally had no time to waste — the title of the late Ursula K. Le Guin’s final essay collection, No Time to Spare (2017), also comes to mind — would find such benefits to languorous spells. But in his new book, In Praise of Wasting Time (2018), the novelist, physicist, and MIT humanities professor Alan Lightman agrees that it is only with such unstructured time that we can rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes completely against the modern idea that time is money and every minute of life must be devoted to a project.

Like Hampl, Lightman looks back to a bucolic 1950s upbringing spent building things and experimenting, and laments that he, too, has become obsessed with maximizing his use of time: “For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers […] I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole.” Yet there is another way of approaching time, as he discovered when he was doing research in a village in Cambodia (he is the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, which encourages female leadership in Southeast Asia). He realized that the women he talked to didn’t own watches and thus had no real sense of how long any task took them.

Lightman’s sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. In short, he blames the internet, but specifically smartphones. Being constantly wired chains us to our devices and deadlines and fosters a state of near-constant distraction that we give the optimistic label of “multi-tasking.” The rise in adolescent depression, in particular, may be a direct consequence of this connected lifestyle. An addiction to social media, Lightman says, goes hand in hand with neurosis about missing out on friendship and affirmation. Yet he himself is no Luddite: he admits he’s recently acquired a smartphone and finds it invaluable for navigation, even as he recognizes in himself the worrying urge to check for messages every few minutes.

More so than Hampl, Lightman insists on the almost mystical benefits of free time and solitude, which he calls “a gift to our spirit” and an opportunity to “repair our selves.” He feels strongly that people of all ages must have time for introspection scheduled into their days and recommends a period of silence at schools as well as a device-free hour at home. Planning to do nothing? That might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s just what Lightman prescribes. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time,” he asserts.

Hampl and Lightman start from the same point of frazzled frustration and arrive at many of the same conclusions about the necessity of “wasted” time but go about it in entirely different ways. Lightman makes a carefully constructed argument and amasses a sufficient weight of scientific and anecdotal evidence; Hampl drifts and dreams through seemingly irrelevant back alleys of memory and experience. The latter is a case of form following function: her book wanders along with her mind, in keeping with her definition of memoir as “lyrical quest literature,” where meaning always hovers above the basics of plot.

What a strange state we’ve come to, that we need to be taught how to waste time. Listen to these secular gurus: put down that smartphone, go off alone to daydream, and see just how magically time can expand.


An American transplant to England, Rebecca Foster is a full-time freelance proofreader and writer. Her book reviews regularly appear in many print and online locations on both sides of the Pond, including the Times Literary Supplement and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as well as on her blog, Bookish Beck.

LARB Contributor

Rebecca Foster, an American transplant to England, has a master’s degree in Victorian literature from the University of Leeds. She is a full-time freelance writer and editor.


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