the beauty of idleness

The Beauty of Idleness

In a society that places production before people, and economy before well-being, the greatest act of protest to help us rediscover our humanity is to do… absolutely nothing!
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I find myself, for the second time this year, having to quarantine alone for two weeks. I try to settle into a routine. In all honesty, with all that is currently going on, worse things could have befallen me, and yet family members and friends still reached out to me as if to console me from afar, counselling me to ‘keep myself busy,’ and conjuring up creative ways how I could ‘pass the time.’

And while I recognise the well-meaning intentions of those dispensing this advice, I couldn’t help but think – “Why should I?!”

We abhor idleness.

Our culture looks down on it, and our very nature tries to avoid it like the plague. We have already seen in our initial experience of this that – among other factors – the fear or disdain of being idle made life under lockdown unbearable for many. Despite ritually complaining that we ‘need to get away‘ from our busy and suffocating routines, once lockdown gave us that opportunity we found ourselves suffocated again, this time by emptiness.

I recognise that lockdown cannot be seriously compared to a holiday. We did not choose or plan for the former, and while we sometimes return from a holiday even more exhausted than we left, life under lockdown was – and is – a stressful experience for many.

Yet there is a point that should be made nonetheless. Bertrand Russell, at the height of the Great Depression, published the essay “In Praise of Idleness.” In a period not wholly dissimilar to our own, with many facing unemployment and financial hardships, Russell challenges the Western ideal of work as the marker of success – or rather of treating work as an end rather than a means. Russell focused on the importance of leisure. Yet I believe we can take a further step.

What does it mean to be idle?

The experience of living under lockdown, of being unemployed, of going on retreat, of protesting, of going on holiday or on pilgrimage, and even of sickness and death all involve being idle. And all these experiences are, to some extent, undesirable – at least initially – to ourselves (such as being unemployed or sick), or to others (protesting is ‘annoying’ to the government, holidaying might be ‘annoying’ to an employer). In these experiences of idleness, we are not ‘being busy’ and some would go as far as saying that we are not ‘functioning normally.’

Is this the case? Is idleness to be abhorred and avoided at all costs? Blaise Pascal famously stated that

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”

from man’s (or woman’s) inability to be idle. The diminishing importance that is continually given to the humanities as a result of centuries of educating children to be ‘useful,’ along with the equation of wealth and work as the only markers of success and achievement, have gradually led us to discount and discard those activities and objects that we consider as contrary to these goals. We look at cloistered monks, pensioners, and poets disapprovingly – they are not being useful. As a result, we seek to continually expand our wealth, even by corrupt means if necessary or continually seek to be alienated by fleeting pleasures at the expense of meaning and purpose. We slowly forget how to enjoy actions such as leisure, reflecting, giving thanks, creating, loving – the very things that make us human, the very things that work and busyness should help us attain and not put aside.

Russell jokingly stated that

“in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult.”

It seems difficult enough as it is for us, though. While we might not actively seek such moments of idleness – since to do so is possibly also to act contrary to the very definition of being idle, yet, at least, we should attempt to use the situations we find ourselves in – desirable or not – to learn to be idle. For in being idle, we become human.

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