When we first isolated in our homes during the onset of the pandemic, many of us boasted of all that we would get done with our time — the home projects that we would take on, the exercise regimes we would undergo, the second languages we would commit to learning. I know I did. I enrolled in a few online classes and started several ambitious personal projects. Of course, in the end, many of us found that we didn’t have nearly as much free time as we thought we would, and these ambitions fell to the wayside fairly quickly.
This was certainly the case for me, and considering the discarded projects I failed at, I feel a certain amount of guilt at my lack of productivity. And I still feel this…as if I failed to seize an opportunity to better myself. Why is that? Why do we have such a hard time embracing a bit of unstructured downtime? The old saying “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” reflects our disdain of people with too much time on their hands.
Americans, especially, are obsessed with productivity. We are one of the most overworked nations in the world: Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers. Most industrialized countries get at least 20 vacation days (we average 13) and we are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have legally mandated leave. And it’s only getting worse: the average productivity of the American worker has increased 400% since 1950, meaning that we have to work longer and longer hours to retain the same standard of living. Even our children can’t escape the church of work. When they are not at school, their time is packed into after-school “enrichment” activities: dance classes and recitals, sports, and tutors.
Is it any wonder that the pandemic and the thought of children staying at home is sending the nation into a tailspin. What will kids do if they can’t go to school? What will they do with their time? What will we do if we can’t send them somewhere so that we can work? What will our country do if we can’t get on with the business of getting on?
Apart from the economic dangers of idleness within our country (which is a whole other subject for another time), we view too much free time with suspicion. We find ourselves increasingly incapable of relaxing, letting minds, bodies, and spirits breathe. What little free time we do have is taken up frantically checking our phones for the latest texts, tweets, the incessant doomsurfing and the tik toking, as if we are afraid of what the voice in our head would say if everything else were quiet.
I get it. Our species and civilization wouldn’t survive without work. Who would grow the food, lay the roads, build the houses if we all lived a life of leisure? And granted, there is integrity in the work that we do, satisfaction in a day worked well.
And yet the things which make our civilization great would not be possible without idleness. Think of the art that is created, the literature and the philosophies that are written by people who have the luxury of time. Now granted, a lot of great artists and thinkers were historically of a privileged class. Their wealth and status afforded them the means and societal permission to the spend their days strolling in the garden of ideas.
The rest of us have to work. But let’s take a few minutes to consider the virtues of idleness, even for us. The ways in which our downtime is necessary for a better world and a life well-lived. And maybe we might feel compelled to work less insofar as we can…and enjoy more moments of intentional purposelessness.
It is a well-known fact that own productivity suffers when we are perpetually busy. Studies have shown that long hours of work without sufficient breaks makes us less efficient. Time to decompress, letting our minds wander, gives rise to creativity and “eureka” moments. In addition to allowing us to work better, idle moments benefit us in other ways. We are free to contemplate our lives and situation, reflect on our own satisfaction, happiness, or lack thereof…and figure out ways to make it better. We can reflect on our society, our world, the ways in which it is unjust and how it can be improved. How can we make ourselves better, our world better, when our lives are so busy and frenetic that we scarcely have time to reflect, much less have time to make substantive changes? Idleness is a tool of spirituality, a tool of self-improvement, and a tool of justice, too. Waste time for yourself. Give yourself the time to get up to no good.
And yet…while these benefits of idleness are important, we should be careful that we don’t couch its value in the ways in which it can make us more efficient machines. That’s really the same trap. Idleness, by its definition, is activity without purpose. To look for the good it gets us rather misses the point!
If we look at the moments that give our lives meaning, most often they are the small moments where we are spending time doing nothing in particular. The lazy Sunday mornings spent laying in bed with our mates and our kids. Afternoons in in the grass, meandering conversations with friends, quiet sunsets on the porch. These — not the moments frantically spinning on the hamster wheel — are what we live for. Idleness reminds us that our lives are a good in and of themselves. That we are more than what we produce or bring to the table. The greatest gift idleness can give us is the reassurance that we have intrinsic value…that we all have worth just by living.
This is important to remember when considering people with disabilities, chronic disease, age, or circumstance that render them unable to work. This message is essential when there are voices clamoring to get everyone back to work, even if it puts lives — especially the lives of the vulnerable — at risk. As if our lives are expendable if we’re not earning our keep. They’re not. You’re not.
And again, I do get it. There is certain work that must be carried on if we are to survive, much less thrive. And most of us don’t have the luxury of a choice to stay home. But perhaps a perspective shift is in order: we are not machines whose incessant humming must keep the world running. The running of the world is not the point. We are the point. And the world is just there to make our lives possible.
So remember this when it is suggested that we sacrifice lives for the economy. Remember this when cooped up in your house, feeling unproductive and useless. We have the right, if not the responsibility, to claim our time as our own. So, give yourself permission to sleep in late. To read trashy novels. To take aimless walks. To meditate. To spend afternoons making bad art and singing off-key. Or Sundays doing nothing in particular with friends. To have fun. Pretend that your life, and the lives of others, depend on it. Because it kind of does.