the gentle art of doing nothing
“I didn’t get anything accomplished today.” How often have you spoken those words or heard them spoken by someone else? Most of us seem to be conditioned to accomplish things and we feel guilty if this isn’t happening. This is a good thing in many ways because it means that a lot does get accomplished by us humans. But there are times when we may just like to sit and do nothing. I am actually getting to be quite good at it. One of my favourite activities is to gaze out the window at the trees and watch the birds flying by or the squirrels jumping from branch to branch. But after a little while I start to feel a nudge that I should do something. I try to resist this feeling but eventually It overcomes me and I get up to attend to a chore. I put the dishes away or do the laundry or my exercises, anything to silence the voice that is saying “You are so lazy. Stop your loafing and do something, anything.”
Does any of this sound familiar? Do you enjoy your do nothing times only when you’ve earned them through hard work? Or do you love being active all the time and wonder what I’m talking about? Whether you are fans or fugitives of the work ethic, you may be wondering what value there is in doing nothing and why I am being an advocate for it.
I see it as partly a correction of a busyness trend in our culture. Always keep busy. It doesn’t much matter what you are busy at. Just don’t be idle. Idleness was once considered to be an invitation to the devil. I went on the internet and found dozens of quotes denouncing it as a sin. Nevertheless, many great thinkers spoke well of it. Oscar Wilde said “Idleness is the most exquisite thing a university can teach its students.” Really! Isn’t exquisite a little off the top in praising it? Soren Kierkegaard said “Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is really the only true good.”
What did these authors mean by these enigmatic statements? Could they mean that our soul blossoms in our idle moments when we are not thinking, planning, worrying and getting stressed out with so much to do? That sounds quite exquisite to me, to take a break from doing and just be.
But isn’t there an idleness that is just plain lazy and has no redeeming qualities? Yes, I don’t think good always comes out of it. But I don’t see idleness as being inherently evil either. I would not want to pass judgment on what is good or bad. Sometimes one can lead to the other. Sometimes a person does nothing because they don’t know what to do or they lack the confidence to take action. More often people do nothing because they need to rest from too much activity. Sometimes it can be the prelude to creativity. Maybe we could look at it as being like the spaces between musical notes, without which the music would sound like a cacophony.
I am not suggesting we abolish doing things. Our world would be a poor place without those who get good things done. I am pleading for a balance between the two. But sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. Is surfing the web on your phone or other device considered doing something or nothing? What about switching channels on the tv all day? Or what about when we are depressed and stay in bed all day?
None of this is what I mean by the gentle art of doing nothing. I do consider it an art that most of us have never been schooled in. This may sound ludicrous but I believe we can be trained in it. Nature could be one of our teachers, as could music, art and poetry. But we also need human teachers as role models. Children are naturals at it. If we interviewed these teachers as to what it is they teach, they might say “Nothing,” But how will the students know if they have passed the course," we ask? “They won’t” is the answer. “It isn’t possible to fail the course.” At this point the interview ends abruptly as the futility of more questions becomes obvious.
I like to compare doing nothing as one wing of the bird and doing something as the other. The bird can’t fly with one wing. Both are necessary. In our human journey, the two wings can be called doing and being. Both are essential for a fulfilling life.
I quote from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Being quiet” which made quite an impact on me.
“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves.”
The word “sadness” jumped out at me. Have I avoided truly understanding myself by jumping on the treadmill of activity? Yes, I certainly did in the past but now old age has slowed me down so that treadmill riding no longer has any appeal even if it were physically possible. The question I am left with from the poem is: Why do we (or I) go to such lengths to avoid understanding ourselves? Are we missing out on the ultimate prize in life? How do Neruda’s words speak to you?
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Welcome to my blog! I am a Reverend and the author of OLD: A Time For the Soul To Flourish.