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Readers of this blog will have noticed that I am a radical Atheist. But there is one religious idea that I have incorporated in my life, although in a secular version.
It’s the idea of the shabbat, the 7th day of the week, on which one is supposed to rest. I use the Jewish term for this day, because I think it’s the best known, but many other religions have similar recommendations/rules, following a 7-day rhythm, from the Buddhist uposatha to the appropriately named 7th Day Adventists.
The Bible says you are not to shear sheep or to plow the field, but as this wouldn’t really make any difference in the lives of most contemporary believers, there is room for interpretation. Have you ever noticed that theology is a lot like law, just without the democratic legitimacy? Contemporary disputes seem to focus on whether it’s OK to drive on shabbat or to use electricity.
But I am not bound by the Bible or others’ interpretations of it. I don’t have any gods to appease. I have adopted the idea for the sake of my own sanity alone.
So what do I do on my shabbat?
The first point is: no work. Now, most people will say “oh, I already do that. I have Saturday and Sunday off.” But that’s not what I mean. After all, I personally don’t work regularly anyway. I mean: not even thinking about work! And that’s a big difference.
In practice, this means that on my shabbat, I will not read any e-mails, I will turn off my phone, I will not go through any documents that are work-related, I will not try to improve any skills that can be put to use, and I won’t even think or talk about work.
The second point, and it aids the first one tremendously, is to spend the day in nature. It doesn’t need to be anything far or fancy. I usually just go out of the door and walk through the forests and across the fields, until it gets dark. If I felt that I can’t walk that much, I would go to a lake and read a book there (but nothing work-related).
I currently live in the countryside in Germany, which makes this easier than for someone living in Mexico City, I concede that. But when I have lived in cities, I just took the bus to the last stop and started walking from there. Or sometimes I take the train to a town 30 km away and walk back home. It doesn’t really matter, it’s not a sports day, it’s not a competition. The idea is to clear the mind from all the clutter. And you’ll be surprised how soothing nature is.
The third point might be the most important one: no internet. I wake up in the morning, I pack my backpack and I leave the house without having checked e-mail, Facebook or Twitter. If this is a problem for you, then you are addicted. And most of us are. But once you are outside, enjoying all the shades of green, the fresh flowers, the chirping of the birds, or maybe talking to the farmer in the field or another hiker that you bump into, you will begin to feel the freedom that comes from lack of connectivity. And remember, until about twenty years ago, that’s how we all lived all the time. And we were fine.
Even if you are not into nature, you can follow the third point. You can go to a museum. Or to the library. Or fishing. Or race your bike around the island. Theoretically, you could also do it at home and read Russian literature or play the guitar all day. But at home, I find the temptations too many. There is the TV, there is the computer, there is the phone. And swoosh, you’ll have lost another day to mindless waste of time.
There are three main lessons of the internet-free day: (1) I don’t really need Twitter or Facebook or even the news. When I come home from such days, I realize how much you can get out of a day if you aren’t constantly online. (2) Nobody needs me or my opinion, either. The world continues very well, or just as badly, without my contribution. I am really not important. (3) Without the constant distractions and interruptions, I can have deeper thoughts, think about bigger issues, think differently. I feel that this has an effect on the quality of my thinking, as I am not torn out of any train of thought by a new tweet or a beeping cell phone every few minutes.
You may have noticed that I prefer to do such activities alone, but that’s not necessary. Actually, when I look at many couples and how little they communicate with each other and their children, compared with the time they spend on gadgets, then maybe it would be healthy to spend a day outside, just the two of you, without worrying about likes on Instagraph, being happy to spot a squirrel instead. If that thought scares you more than it fascinates you, then it’s time to end the relationship anyway.
Even with all my skepticism towards technology, I make one exception when I walk around an area that I know and where the novelty effect is low: an MP3 player with one earplug, because one ear should always be open to the sounds of nature. The important difference to a phone or the internet is that I choose ahead of time what I download and what I listen to. I am not lead from clickbait to clickbait. I listen to podcasts about the history of the Incas or about Kant’s categorical imperative (I try to avoid current politics because a lot of it won’t matter in six months), rather than waste my time looking at the 112th photo of cute cats or girls in bikinis. (By the way, guys, you would be surprised how often you come across a secret lake or a secluded bay, with a naked woman walking out of the water, lasciviously asking you if she can use your shirt as a towel. True story.)
I personally don’t even have a regular day of the week for this. Sometimes it’s on the weekend, sometimes during the week, depending on where I am, what I have to do, and on the weather, of course. But it’s the one day of the week that I am always looking forward to. There is delight in being unproductive. After all, we are humans, not machines.
Actually, now that I am thinking of it, maybe I should extend this routine to one week per month.