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In Defence of Idleness

I'm sure most people have heard that wonderful Chinese curse, may you live in interesting times, or something along those lines, at once in their lives. Perhaps the first time you heard it you didn't quite understand it, thinking what's wrong with interesting or something similar. It's only after you've lived through a couple of interesting events that you begin to understand that there is a difference between interesting and interesting.

I'm sure that anyone living in Iraq, be they Sunni, Shite, man on the street, or American soldier, has a finer understanding of that statement right now than most of us. The same probably could be said for anybody living in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Malaysia, or any one of the other places in the world where the times could be said to be interesting. Hell there are days I find it too interesting to walk downtown in my little city, to be able to even imagine what it would be like to live under the continual threat of death like they do.

Boredom just doesn't get the recognition it deserves sometimes. Over the years it has received a lot of bad press with our emphasis on productivity and making oneself useful. Sayings like: "idle hands are the devil's playground" have gone a long way to in contributing to its bad name. That damn Protestant work ethic will get you every time.

Not only does that infamous ethic demand time's constant utilization, it also defines time's meaningful use as that which produces results of intrinsic value through sayings like "Time is money". A second that's used on something that doesn't have a financial return is a second wasted.

Capitalism, the pursuit of capital, that's what we call the way we live. Taken in that context, time is money, is as accurate a statement as any to describe how are lives are defined from the moment we are born to the moment we die. But the same can be said about any of the so-called isms that have been postulated as means for organizing our social structure.

Communism, socialism, fascism, Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, anarchism, any ism you want to mention is all about the division of time and how it is used for the ordering of the masses and being productive. It really doesn't make much of a difference if you’re a minimum wage slave for Wal-Mart or working in a collective farm in Minsk (I know they probably don't exist anymore, but let's just call it poetic licence and move on) you can bet the attitude towards time is the same.

Not only is it important that you don't waste time, but that you use it in as productive a manner as possible. Whether it's to earn those big bucks that Sam's kids are paying you or to help meet your quota for the month is immaterial, the social pressure is the same. Be that good little cog in the wheel that keeps the bigger cogs moving around, which keeps the, ah screw it, you get the picture.

So it doesn't matter what kind of government you grow up under, in the European/Slavic Christian world, boredom is frowned upon. (I offer that qualification based on ignorance not on any access to knowledge, I'd hazard a guess and say Japan and South Korea pretty much fall into those categories too, but I don't know enough about other societies and cultures to comment on their attitudes towards "spare time") We fill spare time with either hobbies or passive entertainments like television, movies, or video games. (By passive, I mean you don't need to initiate anything on your own, you simply react to a given situation)

Now I can hear an argument forming on the horizon, running along the lines of; if there is so much regulation and order in people's life, how do you explain all the violence among young people and gangs? The first thing I'll do is ask, what's the root cause of so much public violent crime today? (The majority of violent crime is domestic, which is a whole other valley of fear to walk through at another time) Monetary gain. It may be to get money for a fix, or just to get money, but it's still monetary gain.

If time is money, there's no quicker way to get it than a quick snatch at the local store, especially if your junk habit makes you next to unemployable. A bank robbery is probably the most efficient use of time going. The most gain for the least investment. Of course as with any high yield investment, the risks are higher, but that just makes it more interesting doesn't it?

What's a gang if not a type of corporate model? They have a hierarchy, from the underage "tinnies" who can't do time because of their age, to those running the show back in the shadows where they won't be touched. In a world where you are measured by your monetary worth, and expediency is condoned as a virtue, what easier way is there for a kid from the projects to get ahead than a local gang?

Money, power, and the respect we are taught that goes with them are there for the taking. To our eyes it looks like a perversion of the Protestant work ethic, but when you live in a third floor, cold water, walk up, it could look like the most productive use of your time.

I often wonder where this obsession with time and productivity came from. Was it a reaction to the cultures that preceded Christianity where individuals were encouraged to dream and spend time in contemplation? It's not like Christianity is against that sort of behaviour as its history is filled with Monastic orders that have offered refuges from the world to those wishing to meditate on the higher mysteries of life according to the faith.

But even in those situations look at the word used to describe that activity: retreat. That's a word loaded with negative connotations. Retreat is used to describe a failure to advance in military parlance or even worse to cede territory to an opponent. In most cases, a retreat is considered a defeat.

So what does that imply about people who "retreat" to a monastery. That they have been defeated by society, that they can't cope with the hustle and bustle of day to day living and have been forced to back away, give ground as it were, in order to survive.

That doesn't say much for our attitude towards a life of quite contemplation does it? Most of us would consider it a cop out in fact. You only need to look at the negative implications we have attached to the word dreamer or daydream and you'll begin to understand how deep rooted the antipathy is buried.

This probably goes a long way towards explaining the outsider status of artists. Although it is of vital importance for an artist to be doing his or her painting, writing, singing or whatever as much as possible, it is equally important that they spend time with their minds at rest in quiet contemplation.

I don't mean meditating or anything even that formal, just sitting and letting thoughts chase each other around your brain without any purpose. Sitting and staring out a window at nothing in particular and drifting, without the aid of any stimulant or intoxicant, without any intent or objective, is probably considered the epitome of unproductive behaviour, but I find it essential to my ability to create.

From such idle sitting sprang my novel's entire plot and outline. It didn't appear fully formed or anything, but I watched it take shape before my eyes and figured out how it could be written. The practical writing of it still had to take place, but that was easy considering I had already seen the whole story and only needed to fill in the blanks.

I can't imagine some of the great ideas of the world coming into being without their conceivers having had idle moments. Moments of artistic and creative inspiration are not usually born from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. They need to be accessed via our subconscious, and that's not possible if we never let our mind have a moment's rest while awake.

We suffer from constant information overload, continually bombarded with colour, sound, and scents. How can anybody think clearly while continually trying to process all that information? Think of yourself as a computer with an old Pentium 1 200 processor and 32 mb of ram trying to run one of today's complex games, and you'll have a good idea of what I'm talking about.

Is it any wonder so many people are taking anti depressants and anti anxiety medication? Our cerebral cortexes are being fried and we don't even know it, and not only are we encouraged to maintain this behaviour, but told to do otherwise is wrong. At the same time we have pundits wondering why productivity is down, and quality of service is decreasing.

The solution is having the freedom to do nothing. To have time on your hands to sit and stare out the window with no responsibilities weighing you down, or outside information intruding on your thinking. At first you might be bored, not know what to "do" with yourself, but that's the conditioning you need to be able to overcome; the feeling that you always have to be doing something.

Try an experiment, set aside a half hour each week where you will sit and just do nothing in as quiet an environment as you can create. Try not to look at anything specific, that's why staring out a window is so good, and see what happens. If you feel like it, record what the experience was like the first time so you have something against which to judge how things change if you continue the experiment.

Remember though, you have absolutely no purpose for doing this. Don't expect anything, don't anticipate anything, and see what happens. I think you'll be surprised at how much hard work it takes to just sit and do nothing.

I think it is about time that our society got it through its thick skull that there is nothing wrong with doing nothing. So give it a try, after all you've nothing to lose.

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