Zach Stecker

Things I collected during freshman year: friends (best, close, good, former), extracurricular activities, hook-ups, enough books to confidently shelve a small library, a GPA much lower than the one I had in high school, a battered but resilient sense of self-worth, a battered but resilient liver, and maybe some small amount of knowledge. All of this was great, except for one thing: I had no free time whatsoever.

This made going home in May a shock to the system. After months of nothing but precisely scheduled time, I had a whole summer of nothing ahead of me. There was a summer job, yes, but only as a lifeguard at the local pool, where I rarely worked more than four days a week. My only other responsibility was to occasionally drive my brother to soccer practice. The rest of my time was just that—mine.

And it was often a challenge to fill that time in the first weeks at home. My brain, so used to thinking in steps (as in: “I will study until 1 am and then I will return to bed and sleep for 6 hours and then I will wake up and go to class and then”), had to readjust. The question was no longer “what do I have to do today?” Rather, it was “what can I do today,” both daunting and liberating in its open-endedness.

It was hard to adjust. The first days, I couldn’t help but stay up until two in the morning, long after the rest of my family had turned in for the night. I would wander the dark house in a haze, repeatedly checking the refrigerator because something would catch my eye this time for sure, flipping through the channels even though I knew there was nothing on. There was no reason for me to be awake, but my body was used to these irregular hours.

In the same way, it was used to the demands of a schedule. There was an unshakable feeling when I was spending my mornings, say, getting high and playing video games, that I was somehow being irresponsible, that there was something I was supposed to be doing instead. But I couldn’t figure out what that might have been.

When the guilt of filling my time with nothing became too much, I switched tacks: I began a summer of self-improvement. I wrote daily, went to the gym often, cut back on the weed. I even started reading Moby Dick. But this too proved unsatisfying. I was getting better as a person, but I wasn’t enjoying it. This became time wasted too, although in a different way than before. After all, it was summer, and I wanted to—gasp—enjoy it.

The sad part was that enjoyment was frustratingly difficult to achieve. Any time spent on pure self-indulgence felt wasted because it wasn’t self-improvement. But any time spent on self-improvement was definitely wasted because it was summer. It hadn’t felt this way last year, during the idyllic summer after senior year of high school. What force had acted to turn me from a carefree kid content to do nothing into a work-driven machine focused on productivity?

The correct answer was, at it happened, the obvious one: Princeton. Here I learned to write cleanly and concisely, to read as if the next page would disappear if I didn’t get there quick enough, to listen thoughtfully (or look like it), to speak thoughtfully (or sound like it). In other words: to be a good student. I did not, however, learn how to be, a task only accomplishable in my own free time, on my own terms.

Free time is an essential good. Deprived of it, you might go crazy. The German cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer once wrote that a life of overstimulation and constant activity can be toxic to the soul, pushing people “deeper and deeper into the hustle and bustle until they no longer know where their head is.” He was writing about the bourgeoisie, but he might as well have been writing about us.

Here, free time is considered shameful. Note the constant drive to schedule every minute of every day, including even meals with friends. Note the endless bragging about work, in which each party tries to convince the other that they’re the busier one in a hellish circle-jerk of self-importance.

Even the way we choose to party can seem oddly focused on productivity. There were several nights last year where my friends and I would work until 11 pm, spend no more than five minutes getting ready for the street, down six shots in quick succession, then head out to a pregame or an eating club. Efficiency was a virtue; the whole process took less than an hour. We call it “work hard, play hard,” but there’s a reason that “work” comes first in that statement.

At some point, the mind adjusts to this, the never-ending demands of work. Sometimes the whole task seems Sisyphean, at best—get to the end of one problem set just to start at the beginning of the next one. But the flow of work is constant enough that these contemplations don’t often have the opportunity to surface into consciousness, let alone conversation. It’s easy to go from class to class, appointment to appointment, eating club to eating club, and from there to sleep so that we can do it again the next day—to reduce life to a series of objectives that must be completed, of tasks to be crossed off an ever-growing list.

Part of this is simply the reality of adult life, of new and increasing responsibilities. As my mom likes to tell me: “you think you’re working hard now, then just wait.” So the skills we learn here—time management, organization, efficiency—are not entirely useless.

But the same could be said of their opposites. Time mismanagement is a skill, and unlike most skills, it gets harder as we get older. Like all skills, however, it requires practice. And even if it sounds vaguely depressing (if not self-defeating) that free time must be practiced, it’s certainly less so than having no free time at all.

There is something to be said for, as Kracauer put it, “tarry[ing] for a while without a goal, neither here nor there.” That doesn’t mean wasting time, exactly. It comes a little closer to embracing the possibilities of free, unstructured time. Certainly our structured activities are important—the classes, the clubs, the street are all valid parts of “the college experience.” But they are also activities that are given to us, that are not of our choosing. You can choose your classes, sure, but that’s an illusory freedom at best—the professors, after all, choose the work you’ll be doing.

The freedom of, well, free time is of a different magnitude. In this setting, reading a book that’s not on a syllabus can seem almost revolutionary, a rebuke to the notion that anyone but yourself knows what’s best for you. And it doesn’t have to be a book, of course. That’s the point. It can be anything you want.

Over the summer I hiked a nature preserve, went to a music festival, collected a few paychecks, wrote a lot, reconnected with my high school friends, tried and failed and eventually succeeded at finishing Moby Dick. But I also ate like shit, slept late, watched stupid movies, and generally wasted time. It may not have been the most productive summer, but it was mine.

The time, with no boundaries to mark its progression, passed oddly—days dragged on, but months flew by. One day, quite suddenly, I realized that it was already late August, and soon I’d be back at school. The thought was enough to drive me back towards indecision—what little free time I had left was now much more valuable, and it needed to be spent well. For a while, I stared aimlessly at the ceiling, wondering what to do with myself, enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to answer that question quite yet.