Embracing idle time

Olivia Gilbert, Columnist

Recluse poet Emily Dickinson urges us to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” words that have no doubt inspired 1,001 writers to communicate their version of the truth. My hope is that this column will be a catalyst or a continuation of our collective reflections on what shapes identity and perspective.

I am most interested in looking at how different cultural and technological phenomena illuminate these aspects of life. I invite you to join me in the search for a clearer understanding of self and the world. The “slant” of each column will be a means to move us a little closer to what Dickinson deems, “Truth’s superb surprise.”

As a first-year student, what I’ve found myself thinking about most lately is time, and why I feel like I have none of it. I come to Whitman after having completed a gap year of work and travel, a year that altered my relationship with time irrevocably.

Part of the reason I decided to take a gap year was because I felt rushed: rushed to apply to college, to pick a career, to determine my major, to start all over at a new school and begin the long ascent to earning a Bachelor’s Degree and beyond. I felt like I barely had a moment to sit back and soak it in, much less create a new life out of thin air. All of high school felt a frenzy of homework, deadlines, studying, clubs, community service—you know the drill. I longed for a period of time where I could live and gain experience without the distractions of school.

I didn’t do a very good job of slowing down during the first four months of my year off, which I spent working on a Senate campaign in North Carolina—in fact, in many ways I was the busiest I had ever been—but that’s a story for another day.

The next eight months, however, significantly changed how I thought about time. For the first time since middle school I had more time than I knew what to do with: a prospect both daunting and exhilarating. I truly felt like the arbiter of my own destiny, at least for the span of a year. I took a job at a retirement home, cooked my own meals, visited my grandparents, explored the trails in the woods behind my house.

As I reveled in these simple experiences, I found myself noticing more, listening more attentively, and remembering things I had forgotten I knew: how richly the wood of my grandparents’ kitchen table glows in the evening light, how the river near my house rises with the rainfall.

I struck a balance that hummed inside of me like a tuning fork. I felt both clarity and awareness. In late May, I even embarked on a two month trip to Southeast Asia with my boyfriend. Don’t worry, I’m not about to wax philosophically on how “backpacking through Asia totally changed my perspective, maaaan,” but the experience augmented my newfound perception even further.

My year off also forced me to consider what time meant to me in a way I never had to before. Even the phrase, “taking a year off” (off from what?) had me questioning how I defined my life. Sure, I wasn’t in school, but wasn’t I gaining life experience, expanding my mind, challenging and enjoying myself? Shouldn’t that qualify as a worthy way to spend one’s time?

I found that after having reveled in the freedom of bountiful time, I couldn’t go back to living in the “time famine” — a term describing the pervasive feeling of having not enough time—that had come to define my teenage years.

“Time affluence,” on the other hand, is a more recently developed term that describes the feeling of being rich in time. It’s been found to improve personal happiness, physical health, and civic involvement. That all sounds fine and dandy, but just how does one experience an abundance of time as a busy college student?

Time, after all, is a finite resource; we cannot simply work harder or make more connections to obtain more of it. Though I deeply missed classroom learning, my gap year opened my eyes to the satisfaction to be gained from slowing down and taking it all in. As I strive for balance and a greater understanding of my life, I will share my discoveries with all of you as well.