By Walter Steinwald. (Originally written Jan, 2019.)
I wrote this because I was curious to know about hobbies in general, but failed to find anything helpful in defining the term or discussing the affects.
I marvel at my kids pretty often and in one of these reveries I saw their avid hobby practice. They each own multiple hobbies and practice them to ever increasing depths. As they mature, the tools and materials needed in practicing these hobbies increase in complexity and rarity. This got me thinking of the state of hobbies and the nature of hobbies overall. Loose parts are difficult, comprehensive boxed single use goodies are on the rise and hobby sections in major stores are reduced or removed altogether. Most of our hobby materials must be got from online. Seeing the benefits my two receive from hobbies, I wanted to just map out what a hobby is before speculating on the demise or not. Some of the edges I found while running my mind over it were pretty enriching and a little startling.
A Definition of Hobby
What are hobbies? Are hobbies good for kids? What about electronic media as a hobby? These were some of the loose questions I had and here are some of the loose answers I found.
Firstly, I need to separate hobby from leisure and play. The end aim of play is fun, just fun. When play is not fun, we stop. Leisure is not fun necessarily, but is similar to play inasmuch as it has no specific aim or preparation. Play is a rope swing, pickup ball game or wrestling on the living room floor. Leisure is a front porch book reading, a cocktail party or fishing along a stream. Hobbies are unlike either play or leisure in the following number of ways.
A hobby would need to be done without compensation at its birth and early stages. Only after a time of maturation, one has the ability and freedom to meld it with their profession or turn it into their profession. A hobby does not require belonging to a known niche, because creating plays such a large part. Individual interest must be the core of one’s hobby because it is the bedrock of the enterprise. One can respond to an invite, but afterward he/she must take the interest up on his/her own accord. It cannot be pressed on one, like for instance, sports, which can be practiced and honed without personal interest or love. A fourth aspect is the ability to acquire knowledge about the hobby, so that one can continue a deeper understanding and a perfected aptitude. To actively participate in the hobby, means to practice it whatever it might be. We don’t need to devote in entire room of our home to it, but one can’t be a birdwatcher or hiker when we have done it twice in our many years of life. There must be some constancy.
A hobby is very selfish, in the sense that it cannot be practiced for any other reason than itself. The reward is caught up in the practicing of it. Doing what you like without any reward save the joy is a tool of life not easily gained but wonderfully liberating. (I think an aside here is important. I can hear people saying, “Everyone knows how to do that.” But, I would say most everyone I know does what he/she does for ulterior reasons. We do things from guilt. We do things to keep up with the neighbors. We do things from peer pressure and how many things are done from fad, commercially fabricated? Most us haven’t learned to enjoy that hobby for no other reason than itself.) And this is an invitation to maturity hobbies hold for us. Built into the notion of doing something for its own sake is the reality that a thing is worth it, that it has value, that it is so great we will spend our time working on it for no other reason that to bring it to completion. I think the pride we gain from creating this thing is mixed with the humility of acknowledging we are as much of it as it is of us.
Because the nature of hobby is creative, the field to choose a single event is limitless. This is where a person looks on to the world and draws a line connecting similarities no other has noticed. Our creating is the closes to ex Nihil we have, because of the deep attachment to our personhood, to who we are. Our creations die with us. There are things only I can create and you, no other. That doesn’t mean everything we create is worth creating, but it does show that each of us has a little godliness in us. When we choose a hobby, we look into ourselves or as often is the case we feel as if it has chosen us. And this is from that deep connection to our fabric as a self. There are museums throughout the country exhibiting surprising collections of originality and breadth. Charles Kuralt in his “On the Road” series unearthed some of the most novel and fun hobbyist ever, from a collector of twine to a man fixing bicycles for the neighborhood kids. Each one of them simple and decent folk, except their hobbies made them so much more, un-measurable in a way.
Also, related to this creative core is the intimacy a hobby cultivates related to that organic founding and constant suscitation for moving it forward. It is some deep piece of the person. It is a visible ribbon of him that is drawn out for us bystanders to observe and sometimes marvel at. This confidentiality is drawn from his/her vision of the greatness and grandness of the thing. The hobbyist values secret or recondite aspects and to bare these things blatantly is nearly shameful. It is very like the lover that does not go about blathering of his/her espoused to any stranger. Sometimes it is such a rich intimacy, that years after knowing our friend we find out, accidentally of his/her hobby.
A hobby, because it is real thing no matter how extraordinary, requires knowledge to keep it alive for us. Our interest or love for it necessitates us to learn, sometimes far outside of the sphere of interest at times, but we always have out eye on the hobby. A mature knowledge and therefore deep study is necessary. There is thirst for knowing more, so we can take our hobby to the next level. There is, I think, a vision of the thing perfected and that is what the hobbyist wants. I think this is for the respect of the hobby he has learned to love
One practices that which he/she loves. I think practice comes fairly easily for the hobbyist, due to the other four requirements: though, I think it odd it is the last essential part we are talking about. He/she chose it, finds it terribly interesting and learns subtle and little known facts about it. This active relationship with the hobby is not a task or any exterior obligation; rather, it is closer to the peace and quiet one feels with their loved one. Here we have no pressure to talk or entertain because we are at rest in this activity or with this person. We are not here for any reason, only to be here. We can see how the creative force really controls our hobby over all.
A Sort of Summation
The role hobby takes in maturing and forming depth and subtlety was for me surprising, almost awe-inspiring. The great amount of space a hobby can take up in a person’s life was something else I never imagined. The idea that we could see our friends and associates through the lens of their hobbies is a bit Dali-like but practical too. I mean what if there was an App that only showed our hobbies, our authentic interests. What would we envision the person behind hobbies such as embroidery, kite building and creating scale-model city-scapes to be like or look like? Or cynically, would they all say watching TV, browsing the Internet and gaming? Let’s hope not, anyway. There are few more aspects related to hobbies that I think must be noted, and so I put them down just to be comprehensive.
What about Sports, Computer Code and DIY Kits?
Many people will list sports for a hobby, but I think we must say that instead of growing and become more proficient and knowledgeable with age we would practice less and from physical detriment become less active. It falls more along the leisure time activity. One can certainly be a sports enthusiast and collector of stats and such, but this is differing from our understanding of hobby, I think. There is little creative means here, more of a records keeper.
Another competitor for hobbies is the craft movement. Some hobbyists certainly have become craftsmen, but in its most basic meaning “craft” is much closer to apprentice or learning a trade, presumably for future pay. Also, the subject of many traditional crafts can be a hobby, basket weaving, stained glass and such.
Then there is what goes under the guise of “popular crafts”; renovating your factory made furniture with sponge paints or “antiquing” ones picture frames. Popular crafts are superficial, in the sense they do not require constancy, foundational knowledge, one cannot increase in aptitude and it asks for little creative movement. Related to and embodying the listed characteristics of popular crafts are the DIY boxed crafts sets any and all craft store sell.
We need to see how much the DIY boxed kit is stealing from us. Firstly, we are given choices, a limited number, for our content. Secondly, the materials that we would use are given to us. Thirdly, there are instructions. We can hardly compare these to the knowledge foundations we talked of for a hobby. Fourthly, there are ample illustrations on the box and inserts for us to (copy?) follow. Fifth, there is no gradation harder for increasing our aptitude. And lastly, how can it become a hobby if there’s only one set of its kind? Also, the things that are made from these sets are often nondescript and useless trinkets. How can these benefit one’s confidence? Comprehensive DIY projects offend the Montessori injunction of not doing for the child what they can do on their own. They are like “helicopter parents” in a box. There is nothing else your child needs and very little they actually do. So, I don’t think the DIY movement is nurturing to or a sign of vitality in the hobby movement.
Then there is learning computer code and building apps and games and such, which meets all the criteria we have made for it to be called a hobby. My skepticism for computer based hobbies lies not in their content, but rather in their supreme popularity. It is hard to believe there is abundant organic interest for computer-based hobbies to the detriment of all other type hobbies. I propose rather that our kids are being pushed into a fad. I have heard of schools offering classes on computer code, I have never heard of schools offering classes on other hobbies. If all things are equal shouldn’t there be classes on scale-model building or stamp collecting? I think our culture is tech heavy-handed here. But maybe it could be said that code will be used as a job skill, but that would put its hobby alias in a slippery slide.
Gaming either electronic or otherwise is a leisure activity just as watching TV or surfing the Internet. These don’t require skill, constancy, deep interest and offer little to no creative fire. I am aware there are “professional gamers”, but doing a leisure activity often and well does not make it a hobby, just as doing a hobby in your leisure time does not make it a leisure activity.
Are Hobbies Good or Bad?
And after what has been described, should parents encourage their children to take up a hobby? How can we go about it?
I don’t really know how my children picked up their hobbies. They each have a variety of them though; from knitting and sewing to stop-animation film making and Revolutionary War reenacting. We have always had a wide variety of books about random things and ideas about the house and friends that study in Antarctica and friends that invented pizza machines. These must have had influence, I think. Also, we have moved around the country, visiting diverse ways of living and working together. I am sure taken together these were helpful and even necessary but without the parental support and even reminders and a little nudging, nothing would leave the ground. The parent; the catchall.
If the parents have hobbies, even though they participate in them seldom, children will benefit. It is easy to draw kids into something we find exciting. It is a sort of test for the parents (as so many things seem to be) to find the interesting and exciting reasons why we like and pursue a thing. All hobbies have attributes that are inspiring or they wouldn’t be practiced. Also, on the opposite pole, sometimes we are so entranced with our hobby that an outside view and uncritical questioning helps regulate and unwrap it. A child’s vision of say photography might help us realize all our pictures look basically the same or our watercolors need some spirit, but whatever it is our child being involved is good. As it is so often, when we think we are helping someone else it is ourselves being served.
And then there is this, which does fit with the hobby conversation, because so many parents fear and to such a degree restrict access to anything that might be harmful. Do we want our children of, eleven, nine, even eight-years old to use power tools, nails, hammers and other violent looking implements? Absolutely. The amount of confidence wielding a power tool can garner is tremendous, but using it with skill and knowledge puts one up a notch when compared with those of us without such abilities. Dexterity and ingenuity are made from this. That is, thinking something, while knowing you can build it. Children dream up so many great and wonderful things, but few will see them to reality. Getting tools in their hands early allows them to become skillful enough to utilize what is needed and know when to use it. And here I think technology in the form of YouTube and the Internet in general is very helpful.
Our Nature is in Control
I think something must be said regarding the unique spirit that nature-based activites offer. With what was said about collecting sports stats compared to bird watching or just plain hiking, while the former was derided and the latter two celebrated, I can see the similarities as well and therefore the argument. The defining character of hiking or lichen collecting is the infinite creative element of nature. When in nature, whether a city or national park we are immersed in un-worked creations. Everywhere we look or touch has the capacity to become something. There is nothing that cannot be made from nature because ultimately everything including electronic media was put together from it. It is the ultimate loose-parts play-ground. What would poetry be without the analogies from the natural world? What about music or self-discovery? I bring these seemingly tangential ideas along to illustrate the specific difference of collecting sports stats or gaming from anything done in concert with nature. We must see the radical significance of fecundity in a sunset, violent and judgmental, baring down over the oaks with sherbet petals lying at their feet, all tucked in with grasses of green and yellow, swaying and nodding as they so often do. This is active creation, actively creating, while we sit there still but burning.
The Last Word
Hobbies are rich in education, where desire and need meet, forcing learning from necessity. Hobbies are rich in joy, built on self-improvement, giving confidence a platform. Hobbies turn Tolstoy’s dictum, “You cannot teach a child what he does not want to learn,” inside out, “A child cannot but learn when he desires to create something.” I think hobbies can do nothing but good for us.
In the final analysis, I would suppose hobbies are at odds with our contemporary vision. Beginning and then practicing something that could become one’s hobby is probably more fragmented than ever because of the hysterical level of expectation today. The screen has become a Rabelais-Tower-of-Babel reaching in, contorting our ideas before we create them. The inability for quiet, for reasoning, for humble self-exposure is nowhere to be found. The fear and idea of humiliation when exposing ourselves is justified with the panopticon we invite into our lives through the electronic media we all love. And with this comes it shadow, the nagging fear we feed that we might miss something. The screens and the speed of our lives do not want what the hobby has to give us; a sort of envelope of our own time, caught up in something only we can see, doing something that won’t garner Facebook Likes or Instagram Followers.