Leisure as an Essential Part of a Feminist Life
The ability to live a life of perpetual untangling through stress and rest
It is only within a life of authentic leisure that one can examine and engage in the world. You can only have the space to ask why — or even see where we’re at today — when you have (and allow yourself) the luxury of mental and physical leisure.
Leisure connotes free time, doing things at your convenience, and, as the always-useful dictionary.com suggests: a combination of “unhurried ease” and “freedom from the demands of work or duty.” Leisure is time spent in a manner decided by you — not by an agenda or another’s demands. It requires periods spent slowly, luxuriously, and maybe even a bit bored.
This leisure allows one to live Sara Ahmed’s understanding of a feminist life — to question everything, investigate it, and interrogate why something is the way it is. Ahmed argues that feminist theory originates from everyday life and the realities of being a feminist in that day-to-day existence. She writes:
“To live a feminist life is to make everything into something questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.”
That questioning requires an abundance of mental space, something you only really get with leisure. Safety is a real concern here: You need it to exist leisurely for any chunk of time. External pressure — negative or positive — can squash it. It can wiggle doubt and concern and other priorities into what should be a time for mental and physical wandering.
The reason you need leisure when making everything questionable is that such an act is exhausting. You need to rest. It is hard when everything is on fire to stop and ask yourself to step back and ask questions. When done right, Ahmed suggests that to question everything is slowly start to bring about a more just, enjoyable, joyful world.
Ahmed’s questioning reminds me of Jenny Odell’s engagement and retreat pattern in her book, How to Do Nothing. To question everything in a manner that gives you energy and doesn’t just leave you consumed by (very justifiable) anger requires retreat, rest, and leisure. Said another way, you should follow the golden rule of Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness’s book, Peak Performance: “Stress + Rest = Growth.” As I’m sure Stulberg and Magness would agree, their rule applies to running fast miles splits as well as to living Ahmed’s understanding of a feminist life.
To live a feminist life means not backing down from the hard shit but also taking care of yourself. There’s a difference between feeling anger and being destroyed by it.
Putting your head in the sand and pretending bullshit doesn’t exist hurts you (as well as hurts the world — we need you). That’s a mindset of no stress, no engagement, no questioning. But the all-too-common approach of no rest leads to burnout. To burn yourself out, to sacrifice yourself, is not living a feminist life.
Instead of hiding, play with Ahmed’s concept of a feminist life being alive as both a question and a life question. It is not enough to question everything. You have to play with the idea, recognizing that feminism is larger than your efforts and something you must continually engage with. It is a conceptually alive thing. And, you can’t control or ever know another living thing. To exist in that way, Ahmed knows, means capitulating to the idea that you will always be heading towards, uncovering, and figuring out — rather than reaching — the real and tangible answer of a feminist life.
This perpetual uncovering of a feminist life as a life question pairs well with Maria Popova’s blog, Brain Pickings. Popova reads and writes on what it means to live a good life. A feminist perspective fits into that context well, but, as Ahmed is quick to remind you in her book, a good life doesn’t mean an always happy or comfortable life. Ahmed has experienced some pretty heavy shit — like many women — and says facing that shit head-on and being rightfully pissed about it is central to living a feminist life.
Facing that all that requires leisure in your life. Stress without rest means burnout. Rest without stress leads to an unfulfilling life. A feminist life is full of stress: A time when a feminist lens is not needed will not come. But maybe that’s okay? Perhaps instead of striving for a time without bullshit, we see where we’re at today, ask why, and slowly untangle. In the perpetual untangling we build something impermanent and beautiful — and always in need of more untangling.