You may not have noticed but your spontaneity has been hijacked. The natural human capacity for free, unscripted and unscheduled living has been stolen from under our noses. It’s time to claim it back.
This hijacking has a long history. The amount of spontaneous, seize-the-day living in the Middle Ages is beyond most of our imaginations today. There were harvest festivals and saints’ days full of feasting, dancing, games and raucous boozing. At carnival time, men dressed up as women or wild beasts, and peasants put on the robes of priests or lords in mockery of their masters. While daily life was full of drudgery and destitution, it was punctuated by pulses of free-wheeling exuberance that makes contemporary life look embarrassingly dull.
How did we lose this Dionysian lust for life? It began to disappear with the Reformation in the 16th century, when Puritan thinking descended like a frost on society. Church authorities abolished carnivals, while new laws banned fairs and dances, sports and theatre.
Then spontaneity was hijacked by the industrial revolution and its greatest weapon: the factory clock. Soon workers were clocking in and clocking out, being docked pay for lateness, and tied to regimented assembly lines. We’ve inherited this culture that worships productivity and efficiency. And now we’re faced by the digital info bomb that has exploded on our screens and inside our minds. We spend so much time trying to manage the glut of emails and updates, and filling up our electronic calendars, that we’ve got no time left for spontaneity. ‘Time management’ is an ideology to make us more productive rather than liberate our time. ‘Just Do It’ has become ‘Just Plan It’.
So how can we reclaim spontaneous living and escape the endless ‘to do’ list? We might start with experimental travel. Try jumping on a random bus and see where it takes you, going on a walk taking every second turn, or talking to strangers wearing hats. It’s about developing a habit of improvised, unplanned living. But here’s a more subversive approach: plan your spontaneity. It sounds contradictory (and a little daft) but I schedule blocks of time for spontaneous living into my diary. When the time comes I make a spur-of-the-moment decision to do something a bit out of the ordinary, like having a picnic up a tree with my kids. Even such tiny acts can make us feel more fully alive.
Let’s remember our dance-crazy medieval forebears and not let spontaneity be reduced to the instant hit of one-click online shopping. Seize the moment not the credit card.