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No champagne was popped and no balls dropped, but last week marked the Jewish New Year. The time now between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, is a period to reflect on the previous year. It is a time to take an accounting of one's self and one's deeds.

As busy Brown students beginning midterm season, it is easy to get swept up in the burgeoning work load of exams, papers and problem sets. It is too easy to put off making plans with friends or taking time to oneself. Let's face it, Brown students by and large take on too many commitments and then compensate by placing sleep or social life on the back burner.

I see my friends overextending themselves, and I sympathize with them because I get it. Downtime is a void that seems to need to be occupied, and we feel at our most productive when we are constantly busy. Lack of structure is scary, and by scheduling ourselves more, we remove the uncertainty from our days.

But downtime can also provide the most magical moments in a day. One of my most pleasant Friday afternoons at Brown was spent catching up with a friend at Starbucks just because we were both there, and neither of us had anywhere else to be.

Having the free time to read the new best-selling book, start that novel you have always been eyeing or just go for a lazy stroll with a friend is a luxury that Brown students' demanding schedules rarely afford them but is crucial to maintain sanity in the face of the relentless stream of papers, practices and meetings.

The Jewish tradition instructs observers to take this time to step back from the precipice and reflect back on the year — a lesson that everyone can learn from. One of the more important traditions is to seek out friends and personally apologize for every wrongful act — even the most insignificant ones — you may have committed. These interactions remind us that what to one person was an off-handed sarcastic remark was a terrible blow to the self-confidence of another. By being aware of how our actions affect others, we can achieve renewed closeness and understanding, thereby strengthening friendships.

In Denmark, people strive for "Hygge," a coziness that often comes after spending time with close family and friends, maybe while sitting and chatting over a long afternoon lunch, sipping hot cocoa and just enjoying the warmth of company as day slips into blissful evening. The Germans have "Gemutlichkeit," which values closeness, social acceptance and above all, the absence of anything hectic.

These terms have no equivalents in the English language. It is as if our language is imprinted with the puritanical working spirit. The thought of taking a day to relax is at best understood with consternation and at worst decried as pure sloth.

But ironically, the German economy is doing a lot better than ours right now and unemployment in Denmark is only 4.2 percent, nearly five points lower than in the U.S.  Counterintuitively, it appears that cutting back and taking time to reflect and be with friends and family is a lot more productive than constantly working.

While many Brown students claim to be constantly busy with this project or that, an awful lot of that time is spent sitting in front of an open Word document staring at the blinking cursor while flipping through friends' Facebook pages open in another window. Because downtime is a necessity of the human condition, it creeps into the in-betweens, forcing the voids back into our lives that cannot be scheduled away.

What the German and Danish people understand is that downtime happens, whether we plan it or not, but in their culture, downtime has meaning and significance, while in ours, it is a "waste of time" or simply disregarded as procrastination.

In a year, looking back, what will you remember? Time spent with a nose in a book or time spent in the company of those you care deeply about? With midterms underway, it is still important to study, but do not forget to also spend time with friends and relax. Downtime is going to find its way into your schedule. Would it not be better to spend that time in the company of real friends than to stumble through the ethereal world of Facebook?

 

 

Ethan Tobias '12 must have checked Facebook a half dozen times while writing this column. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias@brown.edu




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