I’ve been giving some thought to ‘doing nothing’ lately and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is vastly underrated. The subject of ‘nothing’ may seem a little strange at this time of year, when we are all so busy, but I think that it’s topical. I’ve decided that I should strive to be neither a human ‘doing’ nor a human ‘being’ but rather a ‘be-doing’ – the best of both worlds.
I stepped out of the formal world of business more than seventeen years ago because, after nine years, I was spent. But I didn’t just step out of my job; I also stepped out of the ‘busy-ness‘ I had been so hooked on for so long. I can see now that I thought that being busy made me important, made me look like I was needed and valued. I started the habit in high school where it helped me cope with feeling completely alienated and alone, and I just kept going with it into my twenties. By the time I reached 30, I’d finally had enough. Whatever it was supposed to be doing for me, it wasn’t working and I knew it.
At thirty years old, I moved to the other side of the country and started afresh. I went back to school, worked part-time to keep the wolf from the door, and in the process I found a way to still myself for short periods, the way I had when I was a child. I found me again. I can’t say that I loved everything I found when I looked inside but it prompted some soul-searching. Looking back at that time, I can see that I needed space; some ‘nothing-time’.
Although it was somewhat scary to be without work for the eight months that I was, and somewhat threatening to my identity, it was also gloriously freeing. I let go of scheduling and I could go to bed when I was tired and wake up when I was refreshed. I could walk outside, or read a book, in the middle of the morning or afternoon. I stopped dreading Mondays. I no longer got angry when it rained on the weekend. I felt I could breath freely again. When I left my job, I had been as tightly wound as a kid after ice cream but not as happy. It took me months to unwind, but I did, and I am richer for it.
As I look around me lately, I think that many of us are as wound up as I was, and not always to good effect. We’re so busy we don’t seem to be able to make time for the things that really matter in the long run – family, deep friendships, learning, service, fun and rest. Keeping food on the table is important but is that really what ALL the busy-ness is about? Honestly?
These days, the buzz word we hear is ‘stress’. We have to ‘manage’ our stress levels while still finding ways to get everything done. At the end of the day, ‘doing’ seems to be how we’re measuring ourselves. We’ve bought into the idea that ‘doing nothing’ is wasting time, and with death looming on the horizon all our adult lives, that’s close to a sin.
I was looking at a friend’s artwork the other day and we were talking about having white space in the composition. Whether it’s deliberate or accidental, life as well as art needs a space on which to rest the eye. Chefs know this; there has to be an element in the best designed meal where your pallet can rest, or your taste buds get overwhelmed and the most beautiful flavours are lost.
I believe life is the same way. There needs to be a certain percentage of our day/week/year when we take time. The exact duration, frequency and way of taking it will vary according to each individual, but I believe it’s more than just necessary; I believe it’s imperative. If we don’t take it, life turns into an unexamined, undigested blur, sometimes even a lump, as we run without pause from one activity to another. And don’t tell yourself, “but I take a holiday!”, if your holiday is as frantic as the rest of the year and you have to ‘catch up’ when you return!
Sometimes I think we’ve lost the art of ‘nothing’. Even the acts of examining and thinking are still ‘something’. When I was in school, if I got caught staring out the window, I was chastised. Staring out the window on school time, or work time, was and is unacceptable. But outlaw it as we may, the healthy student, or worker, will find a way to take it, even if we don’t know we’re doing so. Some part of our psyche knows that we need it – crave it. The shame is that we most often end up feeling guilty about it.
Doing ‘nothing’ is like the fallow field that rejuvenates itself for a season. It’s the sabbatical that we seem to think only professors need. It’s day-dreaming and reveries. It’s watching the clouds scud across the sky or birds at the bird feeder. It’s watching the rain on puddles and the snow on the windscreen. It’s listening to adult conversation ebb and flow around you when you’re a kid and not needing to participate. It’s staring out the window on a plane or a train and not needing to do anything in that moment. My generation knew how to do it when we were kids. Along the line, I think we’ve learned to devalue it.
So here’s my suggestion for the week ahead, in this frantically busy time of the year, with so many demands, obligatory social functions and so little time: make some space to do ‘nothing’ – whatever your version is. It may be challenging but do it anyway. Find a space, however small, to ‘un-do’. Savour it. Recognize it. Value it. And then see if you wouldn’t like to build it into your life more regularly. Consider it a present to yourself. If you’re someone who can do healthy ‘nothing’, then good for you. Keep doing it and model it for us.
I wish you a little morsel of ‘nothing’ this Christmas season. If, like me, you’re more Pagan than Christian, then enjoy the first coming of the light. If you’re into the Christmas celebrations, I hope you enjoy the camaraderie and the sharing of goodwill. If you’re of another persuasion and have to put up with the negative side of this time of the year, I wish you patience and earplugs, or an invitation to join in our annual craziness. Bless you all.