The older we get, the more important it is to have hobbies.
“What are your interests?” “What do you like to do when you’re not working?” “Do you have a hobby?” These are questions we’ve all probably been asked a few times in our lives, usually by a new teacher at school trying to get to know us better, on a first date, or perhaps by someone we’ve just met a party as soon the conversation about our respective occupations run dry.
There was a time when I would not have had a sensible response to such a question. “Hrmm, let me think. What do I like to do? I like dancing, but only after a few drinks. And I like watching movies. I like shoe shopping. I like eating out and spending time with friends,” would come the answers from my very lame twenty-something year old self. Not that there’s anything wrong with dancing or watching movies, or shopping, or spending time with friends.
Such leisure activities are good fun, but I don’t think they really count. Eating a nice meal or watching a movie does not require much effort, discipline or focus; they are activities that most of us engage in extemporaneously. They do not lead to the acquisition and development of new skills. They do not challenge us to go deeper within ourselves, overcome obstacles, or venture too far outside of our comfort zones. They do not require regular practice, commitment or devotion.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” goes the old saying. Most of us spend a large part of our lives trying to procure our basic necessities – putting food in our bellies, a roof over our heads or providing for our family and loved ones. We remain in jobs we aren’t so crazy about, doing things that sometimes seem meaningless because we worry about being poor in our old age. Ever so often, the duties required for the upkeep of a comfortable life become a rock around our necks. We start to find life boring, burdensome even, and we ask ourselves, “What is the point of it all? What am I doing with the precious free time that I do have?”
Hobbies are fun activities that we choose to do in our leisure time, which offer no monetary reward or financial security, but that make us feel good, give us some sense of achievement, and add more value to the quality of our lives. We need hobbies because it is in doing them that life starts to feel substantial. In the spaces between tending our obligations, we have something to look forward to, a “place” where we are free to discover ourselves, grow, and learn new things. Be it yoga, baking, paragliding, playing the violin, painting or travelling to exotic destinations, we become absorbed in the activity of our choice, and through it, get the chance to exist in an exalted state, and perhaps even experience something transcendental.
If you haven’t yet found a hobby that you like enough to stick with, I strongly urge you to begin finding one now, because having hobbies becomes increasingly important the older we get.
Relationships are immensely satisfying, as is the knowledge that one is competent at one’s job and valued in the workplace. But both relationships and careers will end – children grow up and move away, spouses pass on, we retire or get laid off, and in the final days, we are alone with only time as a constant companion. If we have hobbies, we can be more optimistic about approaching our golden years, because it means we’ll have more time to spend doing what we love. If we do not know what we like doing, we might end up like driftwood; moving along aimlessly in a sea full of nostalgia, doubt and confusion, questioning what we’ve done with our time on earth, feeling lonely, restless and discontent. Without the sense of purpose that having a hobby brings, we latch on to temporal things – money, social status, past fame, or another person, to whom we selfishly ascribed the role of “joy-giver”. We crave distractions or the constant companionship of others, because the landscape within is barren and inhospitable, where nothing has been planted, and thus, nothing grows.
Without hobbies, we do not cultivate the ability to submerge ourselves fully in an activity, in a way that will teach us to be completely present to the moment and at ease in prolonged periods of solitude. We would not have learnt how to tap into the meditative ecstasies of process, and thus remain at the mercy of our environments and circumstances. Without hobbies, we end up looking to the world to keep us entertained, because we lack the ability to engross and regale ourselves. Our interior lives are bleak. We become duller and more closed-minded the older we get, and some of us end up feeling hard-done by life.
When I think of hobbies, I see my mother, making a cross-stitched picture of boxy looking people standing in a garden under a tree on a piece of cloth. Once the tapestry was complete, she would stitch it onto the front of a plain cotton bag that I would use to carry my books for piano lessons. I remember watching her squinting over the Kjeldsen’s Danish butter cookie tin where she kept her needles and thread. She would carefully select different coloured spools and place them next to each other to see which colours would work best together. She would wet the thread with the tip of her tongue and try to thread it through the eye of the needle. Sometimes, she would ask me to help her. “Your fingers are smaller, maybe you can get this in for me.” If she messed up the stitches, and they were too tight or too loose, or the wrong colour, she would have to use a seam ripper and carefully loosen each thread and start over again. My mother had a job, and housework and children to look after, but whenever she started on her cross stitch, her body would relax, she seemed as light as a feather, the look of urgency or tension that usually accompanied everything else she did would evaporate, and she would melt into a state that looked to me like serenity.
We could have easily gone to a shop to purchase my book bags, but mom liked her cross-stitching, so she did it whenever she could find the time, usually for an hour or two after dinner and on the weekends. I had fifteen such bags, each with a more intricate and larger tapestry than the last. I was always proud to be seen with these bags that mom made for me, even though sometimes the prints were a little childish and unfashionable, because I knew how much love went into them.
I think of Sunday runs with my father, who is probably one of the calmest, most efficient and successful people I know. When I say successful, I don’t just mean in his work. He seems to be able to maintain harmonious relationships with his family and with the people he works with, he is enterprising, industrious, wise, generous to all, and a good father. When he was a young man, and did not have much money, his hobby was running. Every Sunday evening, he would go for a run around the park near our housing estate. Sometimes he would ask me to join him. I would get bored and tired after running for a while. At this point, dad would be completely in the zone, working up a sweat and taking his pulse, like an Olympian athlete preparing for a race. I remember the look on his face when I looked up at him and tried to keep up. His breath would be steady, each inhale and exhale held for precisely five seconds each. He looked very serious and determined as he focused on keeping his rhythm and not allowing his overly chatty four year-old daughter to distract him. I would mimic his demeanor and attempt to huff along beside him like a puppy.
Dad’s business grew, and when he had more money and time, he took up a variety of different sports, usually sports that involved being out in nature. He learnt skiing, sailing, scuba diving, windsurfing (once he almost got lost out at sea because he wanted to go further than was advised given the weather conditions), he studied for a power boat license, bought himself a boat and spent much time tinkering with the engine and interiors. Now, in his old age, he loves gardening, and our garden is so beautiful that people often stop at our front gate to admire the sword ferns, Jerusalem palms, ginger lilies, petunias and trumpet vines, all fertilised, watered, pruned and shaped to tell a story – the story of a life well-lived, where every hour and minute of precious time was used wisely and constructively.
I’d like to think that when mom and dad leave the world, they will have few regrets. The way I see it, they have lived good, useful and full lives. And I think that having hobbies helped them to do so. I believe that always having had their own special “thing” or “things” made them better able to avail themselves to, and love the people around them. They carried their secret delight, their bliss with them wherever they went, and the serene joy that grew out of their hobbies overflowed into all other aspects of their lives.
I wasn’t a child who became her parent’s pet project. My mom and dad were busy people, they had jobs, social and familial obligations, and their hobbies, and they allowed me to find mine too. I collected stamps, stickers, colourful pencils. By my early teens, I developed interests in very specific subject matters like Victorian fairytale illustrations, palmistry, the history of the Mataram civilisation, or Genghis Khan, and I would spend hours on my own devouring any book on these subjects that I could get my hands on, always thrilled to be making new discoveries in the solitude of my bedroom. I collected semi-precious stones, crystals and minerals because I liked how colourful and shiny they were, and how they felt in my hands. I would take my cheap stones out each afternoon afterschool and memorise their names, the countries they were mined from, and their healing properties. I grew my own herbs just because it was possible to, and I liked the fragrance from the planters.
Today, when someone asks me, “So what are your interests?” I tell them, “Writing”. And I don’t mean that in an “I’m working on a novel, which I hope to send to an agent soon,” way, or “oh I journal from time to time” way. I mean that I give myself over to writing, I surrender to the process without asking for anything in return, in the same way I saw my mother give herself over to making those cross stitch bags; the way I saw my father relish the strength and power of his legs as he ran. I love writing and everything associated with it. The reward is entirely in the doing. When everyone and everything else I love is gone, I hope it will be the place where I can come to rest and be comforted. I am truly fortunate that in my hobby, I have found solace and mirth. It is a joy I hope to grow old with. And hopefully some of this joy might rub off on others when I am gone.
Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo, November 2015