My grandmother’s hands: in favor of leisure

If you can sit somewhere comfortable today and have a drink you can enjoy, I hope you can take a moment to recognize that you have something remarkable.

THE CRYPTONATURALIST

I sit, curled up on the couch, a mug of steaming black coffee warming my hands, watching the early morning light filter through the window. The birds are chirping on the tree outside, and in the distance, I can faintly hear an excavator as it digs the foundation of a new building that is being constructed nearby.

There’s a deep sense of peace and quiet that fills my heart, a feeling that I know will linger for the better part of the weekend, as I look forward to a couple of days of quiet nothingness — simply reading, painting, writing, and pottering around the house.

I have no to-do list; no work emails to check; no pressing engagements or tasks to accomplish.

Just a few generations ago, I doubt this life I’m living would be possible.


India gained her Independence in 1947, a mere 75 years ago, after an often violent and volatile movement that spanned around 90 years. Life for my grandparents and great-grandparents wasn’t easy. They were subjugated and colonized; they lived through famines, war, and deprivation; they lived in a land where they were no longer free, where their way of life could be upended on the whims of a zamindaar or of the gora sahib.

I remember my grandmother’s wrinkled hands. Hands that were never still. When she wasn’t cooking, pickling vegetables, or preserving fruits, her hands were filled with knitting or sewing or mending her old saris or darning our old socks.

Her hands told the story of her generation. Busy from dawn to dusk, cooking, nurturing, caring, repairing. It wasn’t an easy life, creature comforts were few and far between, but from what I remember of her stories, her life felt much simpler than it does today. Her days revolved around what historians called “task orientation”, where the rhythm of life unfolds organically from a series of daily tasks rather than through careful accounting of how each moment will be spent.

In comparison, my hands are often at rest — holding a book as I read, resting in my lap when I watch Netflix, holding up my chin while I dream, or wrapped contently around my fur babies. Technology has made the daily living of life much easier and more efficient. In many ways, it has made this life feel somewhat remarkable, and I need to remind myself that all of the comforts that I seem to have taken for granted are actually hard won. Something that our ancestors dreamed into existence.

The rise of consumerism and performative productivity

Photo by olia danilevich on Pexels.com

Technology has also, paradoxically, made life much busier. Our lives are no longer task oriented, they are driven by our never ending to-do lists. This is surprising, when you consider that evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley believed that people would get five days off when production efficiency reached a stage where factories could manufacture “all the goods that it [the world] needs in two days.”

The human being can consume so much and no more,” Huxley said in 1930. “When we reach the point when the world produces all the goods that it needs in two days, as it inevitably will, we must curtail our production of goods and turn our attention to the great problem of what to do with our new leisure.”

So why is it that not only are we still working 5 (or more) days a week, but are putting in longer hours on the job? Why has work consumed our every waking moment? Why do our to-do lists seems to grow magically no matter how much we cram into our days? What is it that prevents us from sitting somewhere comfortable and enjoying a drink, without the constant worry of our never-ending to-do lists? And whatever happened to leisure?

Two things, I think: rising consumerism and hustle culture.

Huxley’s claim that “The human being can consume so much and no more” seems unbelievably naïve in the current context. We live in a ‘use-and-throw’ world, where goods are no longer designed to last a lifetime, but come with a sell-by date. No longer can we buy an appliance once and use it for decades — now our tech evolves rapidly and marketers are constantly finding newer ways to convince us to upgrade to the newer, faster, leaner, shinier version of our gadgets.

In this culture, there is no sense of ‘enoughness’. Instead, we are racing along on a hamster wheel, in a frenzied drive to accumulate more and more and more. We are told to rise up and hustle, to hustle harder, that we can rest when we die. We keep running on the promise that the next shiny gadget we buy, the next productivity hack we implement, will help us to magically get it all done so that we can begin to live our ‘real lives’. And so we keep on running. And we keep on hustling. But we never reach ‘there’. We never really find the ‘right’ gadget or hack that will be the magic bullet that solves all of our problems.

At the end of the day, though, when all is said and done, if you allow yourself to stop for just a moment, you will recognize that there is, indeed, a point of enoughness — when you have all that you need to live comfortably and peacefully because you really don’t need to upgrade all your gadgets to the latest tech, and neither do you need to constantly consume things. You will realize that Huxley was right. That human beings can only consume a finite amount of things, unless they’re somehow convinced that their things are a measure of their value and worth. Then they will become consumption machines, buying up things as fast as they can be manufactured and never being satisfied with what they have. But when you realize the truth, when you recognize your point of enoughness, you will realize that there is a point at which you can take your foot off the pedal and cruise more leisurely through your days.

Our culture, though, has glamorized the hustle. This idea of constant productivity, of squeezing more into each day, of working insanely long hours, of the erosion between work and leisure. We look up to the myth of the self made man; we glamorize the hustlers who turn all of their hobbies into side gigs; we worship leaders like Ellon Musk and Marissa Myers who work 16-18 hours a day; whose entire sense of self-worth is tied up with what they do for a living.

The case for leisure

It will be said that, while a little leisure is pleasant, men would not know how to fill their days if they had only four hours of work out of the twenty-four. In so far as this is true in the modern world, it is a condemnation of our civilization; it would not have been true at any earlier period. There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

BERTRAND RUSSELL, “In Praise of Idleness,” 1932

Yet, this worship of work is a relatively new phenomenon.

Among educated ancient Romans, whose attitudes dominated Europe for centuries, leisure was of paramount importance. Their word for business was negotium, which literally translates to ‘not-enjoyable activity’. According to them, leisure, or doing not very much other than perhaps hunting or throwing dinner parties, was understood to be foundational to a happy life.

Photo by Askar Abayev on Pexels.com

Now, we find this idea laughable. We no longer understand leisure. We no longer seem to know what to do with ourselves if we have even a little bit of free time. We have been tricked into believing that the sole purpose of life is to work hard. So is it any wonder that when we feel empty, dissatisfied, or unfulfilled, we end up working harder?

As Celeste Headlee writes in Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving, “We’ve lost the balance between striving to improve and feeling gratitude for what we have. We’ve lost touch with the things that enrich our lives and make us feel content.”

What we need is a renewed understanding of leisure and a fresh appreciation for idleness, which isn’t to be mistaken for inactivity, but rather is simply nonproductive activity.

“Leisureliness refers to a pace of life that is not governed by the clock. It tends to run counter to the notions of economic efficiency, economies of scale, mass production, etc. Yet leisureliness to me suggests slowing down and milking life for all it is worth.”

DANIEL DUSTIN , University of Utah

I remember my grandmother’s wrinkled hands. Hands that were always busy with cooking, pickling vegetables, or preserving fruits. Hands that were filled with knitting or sewing or mending her old saris or darning our old socks.

I contrast them with my less care worn hands. Hands that I can use to type away furiously on my computer or mobile phone all day; to check items off a never-ending to-do list as I race to keep up with the new shiny. Or hands that can honor my grandmother’s life, the dreams she dreamed into being so that my life would be easier. So that my hands would know time for leisure. So that my hands could wrap themselves around a hot mug of coffee while I simply sat on the couch, listening to the birds chirp outside my window, giving thanks for this simple, peaceful life.

This is the question that my grandmother’s hands ask me, the question that I now seek to answer: What would it mean to lean in not to the constant demands of work and performative productivity, but into leisure, into expansiveness, into the space where you can better explore your inherent gifts?

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8 comments

  1. You are blessed that you understand the importance of having the time to just stand and stare. I am blessed too that I can do what I want with my day. Unfortunately not everyone is in that space yet and it breaks my heart to see so many people running just to stay in the same place, and yet falling behind. But I supposed everyone has to travel their own roads to reach this point of peace.

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    • I agree, Sunita — not everyone is in that place where they can stand and stare. There are also many who can easily be in that position, and yet they continue to run around in a tizzy, never stopping to consider why they are running and if they even need to keep on keeping on, if you know what I mean?

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  2. Hustle culture has shifted the way we see day to day life. In today’s world anything that is not making money would be shunted as a timepass activity. Without the time to simply sit and daydream it is impossible to tap into the creative gifts that we hide within us. When I sit idle my mind is conjuring stories. But I am seen as a jobless person in this society. Writing stories and poems is I pass my time they say. Our grandparents lived in a different time where everything was valued differently. You have presented some valid thoughts here, Shinjini.

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    • And we build our own pockets of resistance by shrugging off hustle culture and sitting and daydreaming. Keep weaving your stories, Vini, and don’t bother too much about the naysayers. They may say writing is how you pass your time, you know that it is much more than that — hold on to that knowing!

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  3. This throws up so many questions. It asks us what we value? And from that flows all our choices. I think we can all so easily get caught up in the rat race and allow it to define us!
    On a lighter note, yesterday, I met someone who spent about 15 minutes telling me what how much she did in the last year and a half and how busy she was. This when her main business was shut down. And I didn’t even ask! 😉

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  4. Hustle culture is an apt description of present day society. We’re so used to it that having nothing to do is seen as a disqualification. It’s as if you’re losing out on life if you aren’t doing something every waking moment. I’ll carry that image of you sitting with your mug of coffee on a quiet morning. That’s happiness.

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  5. Food for thought, Shinjini! I think many of us are privileged that we are able to “stand and stare” without worrying about the hustle culture that has now come to be the norm everywhere. But the moot question that everyone is now asking is—Where is this going to take us? And more importantly, at what cost? Barring a few notable exceptions, it’s no surprise that these days, there are many who are now seriously considering quitting the rat race to do something meaningful with their lives. I guess it’s time for all of us to pause and reflect.

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