I generally prefer to do things I consider worthwhile as opposed to merely entertaining. I therefore spend much of my free time reading pop science books, watching Milton Friedman videos on economics and listening to non-fiction audio books. I almost never read lightweight novels, watch Honey, I shrunk the kids or even listen to the pop music I used to love. Unless I’m with others I feel guilty about spending time on ‘fluff’. An afternoon spent watching movies might be quite pleasant in a hazy kind of way but it rarely tells you anything knew.
It’s not that I think an inability to enjoy popular books, films and music is a virtue. I actually think the opposite. People who like such things are better adapted to the modern world and it’ s good that they possess brains bright enough to extract enjoyment from the world around them. It’s just that my brain no longer works like that.
Activities I deem worthwhile are those that either change me or help to improve my small corner of the world. Learning about evolution might be an example of the former; showing my sister how to use a computer an example of the latter. Lying on a beach or sipping Martinis outside a cafe in Rome might be some people’s idea of a good time but not mine. It feels pointless and goes nowhere. Quite where it’s supposed to go I really couldn’t say but to me it feels like a waste of time.
Of course if I were on my death bed and had no future in front of me I probably wouldn’t bother with such edifying activities as trying to get to grips with economics. After all, what’s the point of learning and ‘improving yourself’ if you are about to die? In such a case I would probably just lie back and savour my last few moments on Earth, edifying activities be damned.
I started thinking about all this after I met up recently with three Japanese friends. We occasionally visit a temple or shrine together. The truth is I’m not much interested in either since they all look the same to me and I know nothing about Japanese history. Even so, I look on these visits more as a pretext for us all to get together. Since friendships need a time and place in which to ‘happen’, why not in a temple on a Saturday afternoon?
The real problem is when we have no goal, not even a nominal one. After visiting a temple or eating at a restaurant we sometimes take a walk over to some crowded Tokyo department store and look at the goods on display. When this first happened I thought one of my friends must be looking for something specific to buy so I trailed along. We picked things up, turned them around, looked at the price and commented on them. Then we went up to the music department and listened over headphones to a dozen or so different songs. Then we went to some other department. After over an hour of this it became clear to me that no one was actually looking for anything and we were just killing time before saying our goodbyes. Apparently we hadn’t yet spent enough time together so we were ‘hanging out’. But I don’t like hanging out. It makes me feel like a character in Waiting for Godot.
I tried to work out how I should feel about all this. Who was strange, my friends or me? Was my dislike of doing something just for the sake of it getting in the way of my enjoying it? Should I live for the present and try to extract enjoyment from each moment, in this case trying to enjoy a hundred disparate things in a crowded department store? Or should I just go home?
I had, and still have, no idea which is better. Nowadays I just accept that things are as they are and I am as I am. Thus I no longer go along on aimless winding jaunts through department stores. I would much rather be at home reading a book.