Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Art of Doing Nothing?

A friend of mine recently became angry over the idleness of a 19-year-old male. "He's doing nothing." he said bitterly.

Road rage, office rage, and even relationship rage are familiar to us. But now idleness rage has emerged. Frequently I hear people complain about the idleness of young people. Often their complaints reach a feverish pitch.

What's behind this rage? Some people fear we're spawning a generation of slackers. But it's more likely that our fast-paced culture blinds us to the need to slow down.

In his book "In Praise of Slowness," journalist Carl Honor?? writes about Harry Lewis, who was dean of undergraduate studies at Harvard University seven years ago. During that time, Lewis wrote an open letter to first year undergraduate students after observing that they were disciples of hurry.

In his letter entitled "Slow Down," Lewis wrote how it was important to get plenty of rest and relaxation in academic life.

He also stressed the importance of cultivating the art of doing nothing. "Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled," he said. "It is the thing that enables the other things on your mind to be creatively rearranged, like the empty square in the 4x4 puzzle that makes it possible to move the other fifteen pieces around."

The art of doing nothing isn't likely to be warmly received by those who emphasize speed, competition, and efficiency. But what Lewis said in his letter shouldn't be ignored. Too often students crowd too much into their lives.

Recognizing benefits in the art of doing nothing doesn't diminish achievement and hard work. Instead it should remind us that creativity frequently comes from moments of idleness. That's not to say we don't have layabouts in our society. Contemplation can be a cover for laziness. But in our gotta-keep-up culture it would be a mistake to impose negative traits on those who need to slow down.

It's possible idleness is ultimately viewed as a subversion of the work ethic. That would explain the rage. But the work ethic is often misinterpreted. Consider how many individuals live to work rather than the other way around. In our hurry-up culture a healthy reassessment of work wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Recent studies have revealed that North Americans take significantly less vacation time than people in European countries. The same studies indicate that people have a hard time leaving work behind when they go away. It seems there's always another e-mail to check or a telephone call to make. This has consequences for family life. And it points to a deep fear: We'll be punished if we stop working.

The art of doing nothing could seem peculiar to some. But in our wired world it's not easy to slow down. Sometimes it takes mental discipline to be idle.

Multitasking and instant communication have given us many benefits. But they also produce frazzled nerves, sleep problems, strained relationships, irritability, and drug dependencies. That's why it's important for people to rejuvenate themselves by slowing down.

If we value healthy living, creativity, and peace of mind, we should recognize the need to be idle. By doing so, we may discover the benefits of simply watching a sunset.

Gerry McCarthy is editor of The Social Edge, an online social justice and faith magazine

SkyPilot says; The author fails to mention in the book or the story that young people are faced with parents who do nothing. Parents constantly complain about everything thing and blame everybody else for their failures in life. They complain about politicians and never vote. They complain about their job but never seek better employment. For all their years in school they hear from unhappy teachers. Young people are placed in front of a television set for entertainment and handed large sums of cash by detached parents.

Young people hear this from a very age and for as long as they remain at home. Is there any surprise that this kind of direction leads to bewilderment? It is also the message from the author that he is speaking about the majority of young people. Again, the confusion is in being selective about who the author is speaking. Perhaps this is new world of bullying younger people, by an adult who makes himself dollars by attacking them, rather than praising them?

1 comment:

  1. Nice that my letter is still cited. It is here, if anyone is curious. - Harry Lewis