Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TIME OUT : May 2, 1999
The great escape
Timeri N. Murari
We all live narrowly focussed lives. From kindergarten on we are drilled into a success syndrome. We have to study hard, pass exams, win gold medals, get distinctions, or at least pass and find successful careers. Then we climb the career ladder, rung by rung. We get married, have children and their lives then follow the same cycle. Before we know it we're entering into retirement and wondering what happened to our life. There seemed at times there was no escape from the daily grind of living.
If we belong to the swollen underbelly of the very poor, our lives are focussed tightly on survival - the next meal, the next menial job. The poor don't have time to consider taking a little time away from the hard grind of survival. Their Time Out is the three or four hours they spend in the cinema, if they are lucky enough to be near a cinema hall. The alternative is a pilgrimage or a day's free trip to attend a political rally in the city, paid for by a politician.
Like the blinkered jutka ponies, the road unwinds in a straight line. We dare not look left or right as we don't have the time to gaze around. We're constantly under obligations - to parents, wives/husbands, children, relatives, and work.
A friend confided once that he had fled his hometown of Mumbai only because of the constant obligations.
"I had a successful career but when I came home I was always busy visiting relatives, going to marriages, birth ceremonies, deaths. People would drop in on us, we had to drop in on them. That's the way society is. For me life became an endless social and business round and finally I couldn't take it any more. I quit Mumbai and moved to Chennai." He gave a long sigh. "Now I have time to myself. I can sit and look at the sky or the sea, I don't have to do anything unless I want to."
I understood what he meant. He was drowning in his daily life, struggling to keep some time for himself and had become too crowded by the lives of those around him. Not that he disliked his relatives and friends in Mumbai but they had begun to overwhelm him. My friend took a permanent Time Out from Mumbai but he was one of the more fortunate people. Most of us cannot do that.
We're trapped in this narrow road. And yet taking Time Out is of vital importance for us to renew ourselves; to step back and consider our lives becomes a duty and staying with relatives becomes just another round of social commitment.
Leisure is not part of our lexicon. Most of us, when we don't have an obligation to go somewhere don't know what to do with ourselves.
Certainly, when the schools break up, we all take our annual leave. We leave behind schools and jobs, catch the summer special to visit relatives and friends. The more affluent jet off to visit relatives abroad or take the cruise liners. This school break is yet another obligation in our lives. Like those trips to the marriage ceremonies of relatives or friends in another city.
In western academias, professors are given a year off as a sabbatical from the daily routine of their jobs. In this sabbatical they're not asked to do anything. Of course most do as they're still in the pressure cooker. But the original meaning of a sabbatical was to renew and refresh, just roam around, look at the sky, the sea, the mountain, whatever, and return refreshed and renewed.
Poonam Anand Kumar/Fotomedia
Few corporations, companies or the government give that sort of long break for their employees, even to the President or the Chairman. They may take a week or two off like everyone else in the hierarchy.
It comes down to the question of how long do we need? Many of us live stress-related lives and even the week or two break is never quite enough to unwind. We carry our problems along with us, as we have not learned the art of relaxation.
Then maybe we need longer, a year or two. Recently I met an American engineer who was spending two years off work to bird watch throughout Asia. For him the long break was important enough to risk his career. He'll be a better person for it by the time he returns.
But he had carefully planned his Time Out. He wasn't just loafing, he was following his hobby, he had a reason to be travelling and forgetting his engineering job for those two years. Most of us don't think out our Time Out that meticulously. We have time out after work but what we do most is collapse in front of our television sets, and on weekends the more affluent spend a few hours on the golf course, then an evening party and a Sunday of lying around. We're only trying to waste our time out before we return to our workplace or schools.
Of course we do spend a lot of time planning for our two or three week time out annual break. We've decided where to go, what to do and scurry around putting together the travel plans. Then we're off and when we get there we're busy sightseeing, visiting friends, relatives, and before we know it we're back where we started from. Is that really what a Time Out should be?
And when we retire, most of us don't make any plans for the longest Time Out in our lives. We dream of staying longer in bed, lazing around, doing nothing. The doing nothing is our ideal of retirement but studies have shown that this doing nothing leads only to despair and an early death.
Time Out doesn't always have to last weeks or even a year. We need to be by ourselves, even for a short period. A long solitary walk on a beach or short vacation with the husband or wife, away from the routine. Actress Greta Garbo at the very height of her career, quit film cold. She became famous after that for saying, "I want to be alone." We're all frightened of being alone, we're social animals, but we still need that loneness for our own mental health. It's impossible to live our whole lives wrapped up in our work and duty without losing interest and getting jaded. Even if it is to renew this interest, to try and get a fresh perspective on what we do, it is important to take this Time Out. Scientists, artists, inventors have found that by escaping routine, they've been able to find a fresh slant on their work.
Personally, when I get mentally tired and bored of routine, I don't head for the beach or the golf course. I take off to a jungle reserve. A week of watching wildlife, without a telephone or television or the demands of friends and relatives, renews me completely. It's an escape from being myself, being among strangers who don't know who I am or what I do. But above all it's the calming spirit of animals and birds that renews my energy.
It works for me but that doesn't mean the same Time Out therapy will work for someone else. For the western man/woman the ideal break from their routine is to find a resort and lie on a beach for two weeks, trying to get as dark as an Indian. I've always thought them crazy but, as a friend said: "It's therapy. Just to lie in the sun and blank my mind out renews me. I don't think, I dream a bit and feel the sun's heat. When I get back to the office, I feel like a new man."
We each have to discover what it is out there, outside our narrow world, which will renew and invigorate us. It could be gardening, flying, collecting stamps, photography, meditation, a pilgrimage: a million other interests are out there. We need this diversion from the more serious business in our lives. We have only once around and we should learn to enjoy this life to its fullest and not be trapped in constant routine.
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