Do you ever stop to think about how easy our lives are in the 21st century? Simple things like heat, indoor plumbing, hot water and refrigeration. Multiple bathrooms. Grocery stores bursting with fresh meats and produce whenever you want it, no matter the season, and aisles of shelf-stable or frozen options if fresh just won’t do. Simply having these basics covered puts us worlds ahead of people even just one or two generations ago who spent their lives growing food, tending to livestock, chopping wood so that they could heat their homes, cook their food and have hot water, and protecting themselves from wild animals and the weather. Taking care of the basics of life was a full-time job.
I was reminded of this last weekend when I took my dog for a walk at a nearby park. I have been to this park dozens of times over the years, but this time I went a different route, walking past the plaques that tell the story of the original settlers of the area—the Sherwood family. They were farmers in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, with 10 “surviving” children. The youngest were triplet boys, each of whom became extremely successful sea captains on trading ships that traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard, around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America en route to California and even to China and European cities.
Life was hard then. Truly.
In contrast, on my way home from the park, I drove along a quarter-mile stretch of stores that included five fitness studios, two sporting-equipment stores, two hair salons and a waxing studio. That’s just one small strip. In our town of about 26,000 people, there probably are dozens more hair salons, fitness studies of one kind or another and at least 10 nail salons. Clearly we don’t need to chop wood and carry water anymore in order to live our lives.
Which brings me to my real point—do we have way too much time on our hands? And is it leading to hidden stress in our lives that actually makes us miserable?
As the convenience of modern life grows and almost everything is just a click away—and retail stores close due to both poor customer service and competition from the Internet—I am noticing more fitness and personal-service locations opening. Rowing. Spinning. Kickboxing. Running shoes. Blowout and eyebrow salons. Massage stores. You name it. Ways that bored people obsess about themselves when they have nothing better to do.
Mind you I am not knocking the opportunities for people to exercise. Movement is great. But in the old days, you had to chop wood…carry water…dig in the garden…go to the root cellar. It took a half-hour by horse to get from one end of town to another. Now it takes two minutes by car. All of our progress has left us with idle minds and bodies.
Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so the Bible says. All of our progress has made us fat and unhealthy with an assortment of diseases directly tied to too much sitting and too little activity.
Life for the Sherwood family was active and busy. There was no leisure time to sit around and be bored. There always was a farm chore to be done…or a boat and crew to tend to and weather to watch out for. But now I fear that in spite of complaints about the stresses of modern life, we are merely filling time rather than constructively, productively making and doing things.
I am always happiest when doing and moving. And, true confession, I have been known to get very cranky and, dare I say, pick a fight when I feel bored or stuck.
As I look at the daily news ticker’s list of violence—road rage, employee rage, family murders and more—I wonder if this is what happens to people who don’t have enough to do or think about. Are people so bored that they use drugs and pick fights just to do and feel something? A recent study by the American Psychological Association partially confirms my theory. Researchers found that the more individuals were in search of thrills, activity and meaning in their lives, the more violent behavior they displayed. Similarly, boredom was specifically cited as the motive when three teens shot and killed an Oklahoma college athlete in 2015. This is merely one example of this type of tragic, lost behavior.
Humans are designed to work and move…to have purpose and be in action. Yet we are increasingly living in an automated world that requires minimal mental and physical effort. I find it ironic, frankly, with the surge in self-help gurus professing the importance of mindfulness and community service and all the Zen-ny yoga posers that we still spend time and energy on blame and anger.
Here’s an idea…let’s channel that extra energy…
Since we aren’t going to bring back the days of wood-fired stoves or victory gardens in every home, consider volunteering. Get involved. Have a higher purpose than your personal appearance and comfort. There are a “zillion” options that require varying amounts of your time. Besides soup kitchens and senior centers, you can walk dogs at the Humane Society…help out the National Park Service…build homes and schools with Builders Beyond Borders…or get involved with your local historical society or library. If you don’t know what you want to do, Adriane Berg shared some ideas in a video about volunteering. And there are a number of websites that list volunteer opportunities in your area, including VolunteerMatch.com and CreateTheGood.org.
Now go on…get busy.