Not Very Good at This: On Hobbying for Hobbying’s Sake

This year my pumpkins died. Not a farmer by any stretch, I aspired wide-eyed to […]

CJ Green / 10.5.18

This year my pumpkins died. Not a farmer by any stretch, I aspired wide-eyed to yield a massive patch for the Hallow-season, envisioning hearty fruit sprawling across my backyard, ripe for picking, carving, and smashing. For several July weeks, hopes were high. Curling tendrils crossed the ground, leaves pluming of prehistoric size. Then, August. A few small gourds appeared before the vines scorched like toast. I returned from vacation to find, among weeds, puddles of orange goop. They had liquefied in the heat.


Tilling, watering, weeding: was all for naught. I took it harder than expected, torn up not simply by the death of my inanimate orange comrades but also by the death of a vague dream, only briefly entertained, of me: central Virginia’s dark horse agriculturist. Silly, but not crazy.

Greatness is an ideal striven towards in every realm, in any case, in work, in play. To parse the great from the un-great, we must judge everything. People, for one, but also clothes, sports performances, books, films. Vacations, beaches, time with loved ones: all of this can be good, bad, or a little of both. We rate restaurants, products, humorous videos. Juries of our peers scrutinize online photographs of us and pronounce verdicts with thumbs, hearts, smileys — or silence. Needless to say, we exist not on a playing field, but on edge, in courtrooms and contests. Here an abundance of gorgeous pumpkins would no doubt be more justified than charred vines and a stunted harvest.

In a recent op-ed for The New York Times (ht CB), Tim Wu addressed this exhausting credo, noting the negative corollaries it delivers: how our emphasis on excellence hampers non-professional creative endeavors. When it comes to hobbies, Wu says, we proceed with caution:

We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.

Self-judgment indeed. It seems to be the sad Rome to which all roads lead. After all, something can only be judged as excellent.

The Times have been concerned for a while now about the decline of unambitious American past-times. In May, Jaya Saxena wrote a striking column in which she confessed, “Last spring, I forgot the word for hobby.” Her brain-fart was “telling.” Saxena emphasizes the importance of leisure for leisure’s sake, not for any evaluative outcome: “By viewing work as something we do to support our leisure time, rather than our hobbies as something to lower our stress so we can get back to work, we can actually start enjoying our lives.” As with many things, however, leisure is not so pure-of-heart. Saxena brakes, and qualifies:

It’s worth mentioning that for many people, there are structural impediments to hobbies and leisure time. It’s easier to have a hobby if you have things like a steady salary, affordable rent and reliable child care. If you’re working two jobs and are on food stamps, you’re a lot less likely to take up watercolors.

After reading that, no way am I taking up watercolors!

It seems we’re still on trial. Only abettors can paint fruit bowls while children starve. In this zero-sum game, few things are more embarrassing than privilege (except, probably, being privileged and not realizing it). We now have another good case for burying ourselves in work. So doing, we escape the guilt of frivolity. The busier we seem, the more righteous, the less complicit.

It may be helpful to consider what the most excellent man in history did for fun. By my reading, he seems to hardly have had time to sleep between calming the storms and raising the dead and delivering incendiary speeches about dying for his friends. Frankly, he does not seem like much of a fun guy. Fiercely loving, without a doubt, but also at times scathing. And fully occupied with the task at hand. Not much of a hobbyist, as far as I can tell.

It seems Saxena is right, then. There is a measure of privilege in making something mediocre, something that benefits no one, a privilege that a man as good as Jesus could not afford.

In so many ways, though, we are not like him. He came into the world to save it; we are who he came to save. We are the offenders, he, the offended. We are the receivers, he, the giver. We are the hobbyists, he, the worker. “Leisure,” Tim Wu writes, “is a hard-won achievement.” Which, thanks be to God, we are free to enjoy.

This year my pumpkins died. I’m not very good at gardening, and I doubt I’ll be any better next year. But I think I’ll try again.