person on a bridge near a lake

On Idleness

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.[1] 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.

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