There are no sweeter ill-gotten gains than moments of stolen idleness.
But what is so wrong with doing nothing? Why is it so hard? Erich Fromm has argued that ‘there is no other period in history in which free men have given their energy so completely for the one purpose: work.’ Working hard is a boast. Working hard is good. Working hard contributes to society.
I’m an academic and as a species we share one thing in common. If you speak to an academic, they are likely within the first sixty seconds to tell you about their workload. Like everyone, we work hard. We forget the work-life balance. We don’t take anywhere near the holidays that we are entitled to. We find it impossible not to check emails. (My colleague currently has over 1000 ‘saved for reply’ ). I usually check them every few hours. If I don’t, I spend the equivalent time imagining them piling high while I’ve got my back turned. It is like playing Grandmother’s Footsteps, and the loser of the game gets to respond to hoards of unnecessary queries (‘Dear Vybarr, Your essay question says “strictly no more than 3000 words”, so is 3600 OK?’). I love running because it is a fine way of doing nothing, of lazing in an unproductive co-operation with the world.
As Fromm explained, the Christian work ethic now dominates in our culture - but where does it come from? Not from Christ certainly, whose Sermon on the Mount explains “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not”. Idleness is attacked from so many directions in our culture and I think, like many, I have internalised this. It is like a concrete wall of double-think that I always have to push against. The only way I can combat it effectively is to run away. I leave my phone, I leave my emails, whatever crisis is brewing has to wait. And when I run, I don’t waste a moment wondering what is happening elsewhere because the immediacy of the now takes over in a way that it cannot elsewhere. Everything has to wait. But what is so wrong with doing nothing, for a bit?
In a brilliant essay from 1932, philosopher Bertrand Russell spins a tale:
“Everyone knows the story of the traveler in Naples who saw twelve beggars lying in the sun (it was before the days of Mussolini), and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveler was on the right lines.”
Insight rarely comes when it is searched for. It is always at 4 am, or in the shower, that solutions to problems suddenly click into place. When I’m running, I don’t hear the ‘click’, but the problem sort of falls away, out of sight, and by the time it comes back into focus, I find it rearranged and suddenly more straightforward than when I last lay eyes on it. It is IN these moments of idleness, of separateness, in our daydreams, in our absence, that the truth so easily hidden in the camouflage of the everyday, silently floats to the surface, glyptic and clear.