The Overexamined Life
by Kamilla Khabibrakhmanova
Instead of being just a way to waste time, leisure has allowed me to live a truly examined, authentic life.
Growing up, I was always pressured to use every minute of the day enveloped in something deemed productive by my mother. "Productivity" included sleeping, eating, reading, chores, homework, and an adequate amount of outdoor activities with other kids. It did not include sitting in my room and wondering why humans were always at war, staring at a blade of grass in the backyard, or chatting on the phone with a friend. While this child-rearing philosophy did successfully create an avid reader and overachiever in me, it also led to an unhealthy habit of automatically reaching for a snack or lying down whenever it seemed like there was nothing better to do. Realizing I was daydreaming would immediately set off a panic signal in my brain, fearful of the possibility that my mother would barge in at this moment, angrily demanding, “What are you doing right now?”
My high school regarded leisure with even more contempt than my parents. Sleep deprivation was actively encouraged, Sundays were meant for study groups and SAT prep classes, and summer was definitely meant to give a break to the teachers, not the students. No sacrifice was too big for the ultimate prize of admissions to an Ivy League school. We never had a moment to ask ourselves what was going to happen after college. We were never even really encouraged to think about our careers and how we might grow up into people who would make the world better. Looking back, it seems almost dumbfounding how blinded we were by a promise that would mostly amount to student loans.
When I finally made it to university, there was no nagging parent asking me what I was doing or guidance counselor trying to plump up my college application. I had the freedom to spend all day doing nothing, but I couldn’t do it. I made friends who could spend a whole day just "hanging out"—talking about life, the future, maybe drinking, but often not. The whole thing gave me intense anxiety. There was always a little voice in the back of my head asking myself why I was wasting this much time; shouldn’t I be doing some research on my next paper instead? At first, I obeyed the part of me that had grown up to fear leisure—I would excuse myself, go off to the library, spend 4 hours memorizing Arabic words or reading about the invasion of Iraq. Then, in the middle of a particularly gruelling statistics assignment, I just gave up and sat outside on a bench for a long time, doing absolutely nothing but thinking about my journey in life.
Why was I crunching statistics problem sets? Not because I liked it. Presumably it would impress some investment bank, and I would get a nice stressful job working 12 hours a day moving money around in the most productive way possible. If that was success in the modern world, I realized I wanted out. I was exhausted doing things I didn’t even care about. Instead of pulling my usual all-nighter, I went to bed. The next morning I submitted whatever I had done, then walked out before class started and had a nice long breakfast with my classmate. I told him I wasn’t sure if economics was my thing any more. He said he only wanted to work in finance so he could pay off his loans, but otherwise it seemed like a pretty useless way to live your life. I felt justified with my epiphany, went back to my computer and lightened my course load for the rest of the semester.
Since then, I’ve made leisure more of a focus. Though that annoying voice telling me to be productive still emerges from time to time, I’ve become better at shutting it out when I feel like I need a break. I make sure to make several friend dates every week, go for a long walk if I feel stressed, and don’t feel upset if I realize I’ve spent the last three hours doing absolutely nothing useful. Instead of blindly following a traditional career path all the way up the ladder, I’ve switched professions three times, feeling happier and more fulfilled with each one.
I now believe that the best decisions I’ve made in life have been a result of hours spent doing leisure activities. Thinking about relationships allows me to focus on those most important to me and to cut off people that I don’t need in my life. Talking about things with friends has either dissuaded me from wrong life choices or encouraged me to make the right ones that may have otherwise seemed too daunting. Instead of being just a way to waste time, leisure has allowed me to live a truly examined, authentic life.