“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
– Winnie the Pooh
In between changing jobs, I am fortunate to find myself on a two week break. At the beginning of last week, I was humming and hawing as to what to do with all this spare time. Friends suggested booking a city trip, or visiting friends and family. Some suggested going to museums or catching the latest exhibitions. I had my own ideas, mostly focused around getting up early, finally doing my neglected chores, and catching up on reading and writing.
It was in the middle of my chores last week when I had a few epiphanies. First, no matter how many chores I get done, there is always something else left to do. Secondly, there are not enough hours in the day to do all the stuff that I want to do. Thirdly, I am not physically able to get out of bed early when I don’t have a job to go to.
I decided therefore that on Saturday, I was going to be idle: I would not have any targets, or plans to make. I wouldn’t set my alarm. I would laze around, meet up with a friend or two and just go with the flow.
Being idle tends to get a bad reputation. When it got it’s bad reputation isn’t so clear. Certainly in the UK, being idle is particularly looked down upon. One possible reason is that it goes against the remainder of the Protestant work ethic. In an interview with French philosopher Pascale Bruckner on happiness, it was shared belief that to be a good Christian, you had to be in pain. Even in Catholic Europe, people were not allowed to have fun. Work was delivered by God as punishment for what Adam and Eve did. Clergymen often told worshippers that the only ways to achieve salvation and go to heaven was to work hard, to feel pain and to suffer. He states that it wasn’t until the era of Enlightenment when advances in medicine and production meant that the standard of living was higher and that pain was not necessarily a punishment from God. Collective happiness came to be seen as important for the well-being of society.
Being idle brought about the potential of evil, or at least mischief. I often heard my Mum say, “idle hands make for the devil’s work”. There are many variants of this expression, whether it makes the devil’s work, workshop or playground. Being idle could alternatively bring about insanity or depression. As the 18th century English poet William Cowper wrote, “Absence of occupation is not rest; a mind quite vacant is a mind distressed.” This poem was written some time after he had been committed to an asylum, so he may have had a point.
But what does the term ‘idle’ mean? If I am idle, I am considered lazy. If I am being idle, it usually means I am doing nothing, or I am bored. If something is idle, it is not significant nor worth of any importance. Or, it is not in use (like idle machinery).
On Saturday, I was idle. I got up late. I then spent a good half an hour, sitting on my couch, with a cup of tea in hand and a piece of chocolate, staring out of my window. Was I doing nothing? Perhaps on the face of it I was. But actually I wasn’t. I was enjoying the quiet time, illuminated by the bright sky, listening to the hustle and bustle of the city, savouring the chocolate as it melted in my mouth, feeling refreshed after each sip of tea. I was thinking: about past events; about my future. Sometimes, I was not thinking at all; just enjoying the moment.
Even if we are being “idle”, our brain is still stimulated; it switches to some kind of resting state. During this ‘resting-state activity’, blood flow to the brain is surprisingly only 5-10% lower than when the brain is active. The networks that the brain engages during the resting state are similar to the ones it engages when active. It’s not yet clear what this activity is for, but neuroscientists’ suggestions include memory consolidation: putting things that you’ve just learnt into your long-term memory; helping to organise or direct the flow of information to the different areas of the brain; or priming the brain for processing future information.
Creative minds will tell you that daydreaming is a productive activity and that great inspiration has come from being idle. Meditation is probably idleness in its highest form since one is completely relaxed, the mind just observes the thoughts that flicker across its screen until they fade. The mind and body do absolutely nothing. Herein lies the paradox: meditation is increasingly considered valuable for our well-being and mental health, and yet it means being idle.
If we use another term to describe being idle, such as being lazy, what exactly is being lazy? Being lazy for you may be to go for a walk instead of your usual jog, whereas a walk for me is activity. It’s all subjective isn’t it?
One can say that being idle is the opposite of being busy. “Busy” is a term that has been inflated to be something of great significance. It’s seen as “good” to be busy. Busy means you have a life, you have friends, you have very important things to attend to and most things seem so darn important. But for me being busy all of the time provides me with a poor quality of life. When you are busy, you don’t have the time to stop, think or not think, wonder, be open or flexible, or merely enjoy the present.
So the next time you feel like being idle (whatever that may mean), be idle! Watch the sun as it sets, or the rain as it trickles down your window pane. Watch TV, read, lie on your couch, listen to the things you can’t hear. Don’t feel guilty about it because let’s admit it, we are naturally lazy, just as the English writer (and great idler himself) Samuel Johnson remarked in his series of essays ‘The Idler’, “Everyman is, or hopes to be, an idler“. Enjoy this precious time of being idle because there will be many times when you cannot be idle. And you will wish you had been when these glorious missed opportunities had presented themselves to you.
In case you needed further convincing, seek guidance from another great idler, Winnie the Pooh: “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”