Friday, January 15, 2010

Nostalgia for Nothingness

Last week's blissful snow days of baking and writing and plentiful sleep have already become a nostalgic memory. This week has been filled to capacity with work that exemplified Parkinson's Law (which says basically that work will expand to fill any time available for it), with extra driving to transport my son around, and with nights back at school. And I was just getting good at doing next to nothing.

In fact, after the shock of Christmas break boredom, something I haven't experienced in well over a decade, I settled into a lovely groove of quiet days in the kitchen and at the keyboard, with time for brisk walks, stretching, observation, reading, and pursuit of both internal goals and calmness. Frankly, I want it back--sort of.

Here's the rub. I had to first let myself enjoy the gentle time with which I was gifted. In our current culture, doing nothing is not too highly regarded, so it caused me feelings of guilt and insufficiency. I got past them, but there they were, reminding me how things are around here. America has always been chasing after something--political independence, the other shore, the moon. We became a country not by evolving from long habitation but by a declaration, an act of will. The very first white people here were in search of something, and we haven't shaken it off yet.

You could argue that striving is human nature, but there are other parts of the world where people aren't so eaten up with it, countries with traditions like siesta and two hour lunches--at home. That just isn't done here. For instance, French citizens enjoy a mandatory six weeks of vacation. Most folks I know with anywhere near that generous amount of leave don't use it all. Even my own husband, who is no fan of a frenzied way of life, has vacation days in the use-or-lose category. He's really good at taking it easy, but still feels blocked from using all the time off available to him. As I see it, employers offer the perk to look good, but there's a tacit stigma to taking too much of it--anything more than two weeks of it anyway. In this country, we may admire Thoreau, but we also worry that anyone who builds a shack in the woods and doesn't seem to do much might be the next Unabomber.

Maybe our fear of doing and being nothing is the bad flip side of our belief that this is the Land of Opportunity. We're supposed to be able to work our way up to the top of whatever heap we choose, so if we don't, there's no one to blame but ourselves. We must be slackers,
with no excuse for not being on the success track--getting a college education, landing a "good" job, buying a big house and shiny new car, and amassing a small retirement fortune by the time we're 60, at the latest. We're supposed to be ambitious, chasing a fancier and more expensive way of life. Puttering or wandering require justification--like illness or retirement.

There is a backlash brewing, however. Just today I read a blog post about the art of doing nothing, which referenced two new books on the subject. My current daily reading book (when I can keep the quiet time in the schedule!) has a section on the topic. Maybe we as a culture are finally tiring of perpetual doing. After all, it's pretty sad when even children don't know how to enjoy time without an organized event or an electronic appliance. Apparently they're supposed to be developing themselves in some way with athletics or gymnastics or piano lessons, not just laying and playing around.

It's a shame that we avoid emptiness of time and spirit in the way we do. As I discovered in my few vacuous days, once the wall of resistance is broken through, life's essence--just being--is more valued and available. True desires take shape in the mind and transform into considered activity. With less happening, the inner voice--who can now be heard--has more to say. The bonus is that time, or our perception of it, seems to move more slowly and gently, no longer racing by until, as I am doing this week, we wonder where the days went, it's suddenly Friday, and we're too tired to enjoy the weekend fully.

Here's where I must concede that we do have to deal with annoying complications like making enough money to live and being responsible grownups who fend for ourselves. I am in no way suggesting that we all become hippie bums, living on free love. That experiment failed. I just suspect that we could all be happier by doing next to nothing as regularly as possible and being less attached to contemporary ideas of achievement. There might be room for thought and inspiration that change the world far more than all the busy work we make for ourselves.

I suppose that, like anything else, doing next to nothing just takes practice. Once I started to get the hang of it and let go of the idea that I wasn't (Horrors!) doing enough, I didn't want it to end. Actually I now have a sneaking suspicion that I could be a champion recreational slacker in the making. I'm even hoping to challenge the status quo by crafting a life someday that contains work but isn't consumed by it. I'm quite contrary about that goal. Until then, I hope that I get to practice the art of doing next to nothing again really soon.

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