I believe in the value of doing nothing.
Don’t get me wrong; like most everyone, I do something most of the time. I’m a husband, a father, a high school teacher, and a coach. I cook, read, write, split firewood, take long bike rides, help my neighbors. But when I get the chance, I make like a cat on a windowsill and do nothing.
I think this annoys some people. Maybe it frightens them? I know they’re confused. While they’re busy multi-tasking, I’m busy detasking. Think of the metaphors popular in describing this inactivity I believe in: “killing time,” “wasting time, “vegging out.” As if time could be killed or was some substance you could waste. As if carrots had no clue. The metaphors bristle with self-righteous indignation.
The irony is, I seldom feel so fruitful as when I’m doing nothing. Sitting for two, three hours beside a river, watching the sunlight dapple through the leaves onto water spilling over and between rocks, feeling lichen spread microscopically across that slab of boulder over there — piece of cake. This enthralls me completely. It frees me from your world and restores me to mine. In the process it loses me in the dapples, the water, the lichen. When I find myself again and go mow the yard or paint the eaves, I bring new powers to bear on the things that need doing. (Fewer things need doing than we think, but that’s another essay.)
Or take my annual trips to New York City, the capital of the Land of Overdoing It. I wander. I might take a bus wherever it took me. I might stroll Central Park from bottom to top. I might poke around in Brooklyn, in Queens, the Bronx. Doing essentially nothing. In fact, it is easier to do nothing in New York than at home, where more needs impinge on my time. When I get back and people ask me what I did in The Big Apple, I confess I often pretend to have gone to this museum or that show. I used to tell the truth, but when I got the incredulous, faintly accusatory looks — “You went to NY and just roamed around?” — I decided to start lying. It’s the lesser of two evils.
I realize I have always had a genius for nothing, and have tried to make the most of it. As a child I spent hours kneeling on the livingroom floor over a brown paper dry cleaner bag slit down one side and spread flat. I had never heard of panoramas, but that’s what I colored with my crayons on that expanse it took an afternoon to fill. World War II battles, cowboys and Indians: the great sagas my parents talked about or I saw on Saturday afternoons at the Fain Theater dowtown, with its double-feature westerns and even a serial. I loved Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, or tales of the Florida swamps where I lived. My mother folded these pictures and saved them in a drawer. My grandfather warned my parents that I was introverted. He was a man who loved the give and take of the world, and so my mother did not worry. Well, he was right, and yes, it has cost me in this our land of bustle-praise. Calm, we look at askance. Yet I too admire busy people who spin the globe; I’m just not one of them. And luckily I disdain exoneration, for being a contented anomaly spares energy with which to do more nothing.
I do not live this way because I’m a cynic, like Diogenes, or even a Voltairean pessimist. Nor am I being obstructionist or especially ironic, though I do see elements of both in my peculiar belief in doing nothing. Is it not an indirect, fairly harmless way of thumbing my nose at the general mania to be doing? I suppose my models, if I have any, are men like Thoreau and Whitman. In the very first Canto of “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote, “I loaf and invite my soul, / I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” In another metaphor, it is said we “spend time,” as if it were money. Well, to me Whitman’s brand of mindful idleness offers the rarest emotional commodity of all, contentment, and all it costs is time. This sort of poise between my spirit and the world external to me is the fruit of the labor of doing nothing. This fruit, I believe, is worth cultivating and harvesting, and is priceless.
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