The joys of idleness

City Girl - Country Life

The joys of idleness

By Claire Wolfe


Issue #109 • January/February, 2008

If work were so pleasant, the rich would keep it for themselves.” — Mark Twain

Chances are, your granny used to tell you something like this: “Fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum.” Okay, she probably didn’t put it in exactly those words. But very likely Granny or a Sunday School teacher or your least-favorite uncle liked to remind you, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” Or maybe, “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop.”

They were echoing St. Jerome, who wrote the Latin tongue-twister above in the 4th Century. (A rough translation is, “Do good deeds and the devil will always find you occupied.”) No doubt Jerome was echoing some earlier moralist. Who was echoing some earlier moralist. Who…well, you get the point.

Fact is that, ever since human beings settled down into societies where one man works for another, earnest sorts have warned of the perils of idleness and promoted the alleged virtue of work, work, work, and more darned work until you drop.

“You” is the operative word. As often as not, the biggest promoters of work have been landed gents, philosophers, wealthy factory owners, preachers, and other fine folk not noted for getting their own lily-whites dirty.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to work. In the backwoods, work never ends, so who has time to sit around opposing it? And although I may snort and sneer at the folks who sit in their cozy libraries and assure us work is a great idea for other people, they have a point.

The Thinker

History tells us what happens when we mere mortal weaklings fall into the abyss of idleness. Let us count the ways:

  • We get violent. We hang out on street corners, plot mayhem, and beat up little old ladies. Sometimes we become pool sharks or Mafia hit men. Or get shanghaied and meet an early and watery grave. (Well, not you fine BHM readers, of course, but those other idle people, especially aimless young men with too much time on their hands.)
  • We go broke. Like grasshopper (the one in the Aesop fable, not the one on the old Kung-Fu TV series), we “idle” ourselves right into poverty and starvation, dragging our helpless loved ones into the gutter with us.
  • We indulge. Idleness is a moral weakness that leads to even more moral weakness. The idle get hooked on Demon Weed. They’re seduced by jazz music. They fall into debauchery. (Or whatever the chemical, musical, and sexual tabloid material of the age might be.)

It’s all dreadful to contemplate. Worse, even in this non-religious age, we moderns have managed to add a couple more pitfalls to the horrible historic toll of idleness:

  • Idleness is unproductive. Idle time is inefficient. It doesn’t increase our stock portfolios, pay our second mortgage, or add a third vehicle to our driveway.
  • We get bored. We might, God forbid, go right screaming out of our hairy wits with dullness and lassitude, not to mention the much more fashionable ennui and enervation, if we don’t have a full schedule of work, Pilates workouts, soccer carpools, and community-college classes.

All this is true. (Well, perhaps not the part about Demon Weed.) Idleness is a troublemaker. So fac et aliquid operis and sic transit gloria mundi and excelsior! and all that. Three cheers for keeping ourselves so busy we can’t stop to think about how draggle-tailed miserable and settling-for-nothing we are.

Nevertheless, let me take the contrary view.

I’m vigorously, 100%, in favor of idleness. We need more idleness. I’m working hard to put the cause of idleness on the map. I don’t want Congress to go forcing it upon us, mind you. But I want each of us, voluntarily, in our heart of hearts, including me, to become more attuned to personal idleness, in fact and in philosophy.

And one reason I’m in favor of it is that, yep indeed, it IS a troublemaker. But more about that in a minute. First, a bit on the human history, not to mention the current events, of work and idleness.

Death by overwork

In hunter-gatherer societies—the way humans lived before they settled down to civilization and formal agriculture—nobody had the slightest need to exhort other people with more callused hands to work, work, work. It was very simple: you worked to eat. No work, no chow. Choose not to work and you either didn’t get your share of the mastodon meat or in extreme cases, you got kicked out of the tribe altogether, which very likely meant death. These societies fed their non-working old and small children to the best of their ability, but if you were capable of labor, you labored. No moralists needed.

So given the imperative for survival, how much of their day did hunter-gatherers devote to work, work, work? About three hours, say anthropologists. Yes, you read that right. Our deep, dark, primitive, unfortunate, benighted ancestors worked about three hours a day. Maybe four when things got rough.

Wow. Think about that next time you’re hunting the canyons of modern urban office blocks, watching wan and pallid office workers stuff sugar and grease down their gullets on their guiltily-grabbed lunch breaks.

Daniel Pink, in his book Free Agent Nation, points out this painful fact: “Americans work 350 hours more per year than Europeans, and 70 hours more per year than even the Japanese, whose language contains a word, karoshi, that means ‘death from overwork’.”

Three hours a day versus death from overwork. Hm. Which to choose…which to choose?

But then, it’s not a fair comparison. Hunter-gatherers may have had a light schedule. But they didn’t have iPods, SUVs, Xtreme ski vacations, $1,500 per month health-insurance premiums, or Viagra. And they did have a myriad of nasty diseases, not to mention the occasional spot of cannibalism. They were at the mercy of drought, disease, and habitat change to a degree we can’t even imagine unless we’ve just watched a documentary about it on our satellite-dish or cable TV.

So if neither three hours a day nor death by cubicle is the way to go, what is the “right” amount of work?

Well, the “right” amount of work, of course, is the amount that you decide suits your life circumstances, your goals, and your temperament.

But to figure that out, you need…idleness.

And you know, when it comes to putting a little carpe diem into the subject of active idleness, there are powerful forces in this world massed against the possibility of you ever getting any. They’ve been at it for a long time.

Creating the virtue (ack!) of work

As the Industrial Revolution began to boom and machinery began to make more production possible, entrepreneurs and their moral supporters sought ways to make workers more productive. Although our image of the Industrial Revolution features dark, Dickensian factories, those actually came a bit later. The first machinery of the revolution—textile-producing looms—was often located in homes and little privately owned workshops.

Families would make cloth. Or caps. Or capes. Or whatever. And they’d sell their wares wholesale to distributor-clients.

An early problem the “proto-capitalists” faced: How to get these independent family units to produce more? Aha, let’s do the humane thing and offer them more pay!

But, unfortunately that little burst of good intentions didn’t pan out.

What did independent people do when the offered higher pay per item delivered? Well, like any sensible people, they produced fewer items, pocketed the same amount of money, and took more time off to enjoy themselves.

Those Dickensian factories were the entrepreneurs’ answer. Drive the independent sorts out of business and bring the men, women, and kiddies into the mill or garment factory under the gaze of the overseer—and tell them hard work is a virtue. It was more efficient, anyhow—even if the system did stamp out independence and individuality.

It was about that time that phrases like “idle hands are the devil’s playground,” which had been around for a long time, suddenly proliferated like kudzu in books and sermons.

Then comes the 20th century and the beginning of the modern assembly line. Mass production had already been going on for decades, and in that system workers were just replaceable cogs in replaceable wheels—those Dickensian factories, you know. But some workers—like those who built machinery, proudly saw themselves as craftsmen. A man who could build a reaper or a bicycle or assemble an automobile didn’t like to see himself as nothing but a sort of human machine, welding a stream of identical welds all day, or repetitively lifting one part into place, never taking pride in the whole. These men expected their chosen work to bring personal satisfaction. They wanted to put their own integrity into the work, then watch that integrity come back out as fine product.

Even when Henry Ford offered the then-fabulous inducement of paying his workers $5 a day, he initially had a hard time hiring and keeping employees. All budding assembly line businesses did. Skilled people simply saw it as beneath their dignity, and as dehumanizing, to work that way—no matter how good the pay.

So entrepreneurs and their moral supporters came up with another bright idea. And, you have to admit, this one served brilliantly. For the first time in history, they promoted debt as a virtue. Before that, for the average person, being in debt was a shameful thing. A moral failing. But now…well, with credit you could own your own home (even if you owed most of it to the bank). You could actually drive one of those new cars you were building. You could have more than you ever imagined. And all you had to do to get it was accept a “secure” job that would enable you reliably to borrow and pay. Never mind how dreary it was, never mind what grim hours you had to work, and under what grim conditions.

So the craftsmen fell. And the money, the money alone, became the thing. (Later “benefits” were added to the mix of musts.) The expectation of work satisfaction…the desire for independence…the belief in determining one’s own proper mix of work and leisure…pride of craftsmanship…any commitment for working closely with one’s family…all went out the window.

Nowadays, our culture heroes are pale, stooped men and women with coke-bottle glasses and incipient autism who work 20-hour days—entrepreneurs and high-tech geniuses who work harder than Victorian factory serfs. Wow. Progress, eh?

And never mind what they produce. Don’t ask, “Does it benefit us? Do we really need it? Does it improve life?” Just ask, “Can I get some of that?” We know the consumer price index better than we know our neighbor down the street. The Dow-Jones industrial average gets more attention than the local fishing pond. We don’t &^%$#@!ing care that our new vehicle is going to cost us $60,000 once we’ve finished paying the interest on it; we just gotta have it. We know what’s happening on Slashdot or MySpace more than we know what’s happening in our own neighborhoods. And we work, work, work, work, work to support all this vast, glorious, glittering just-gotta-have-it prosperity.

Since the beginning of automation, a few contrarian writers have claimed to promote the value of idleness. The philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness.” The anarchist Bob Black produced a 1985 essay, “The Abolition of Work,” that boldly states, “No one should ever work. Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world. Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.”

But oddly enough, essays like these don’t actually spend much time on the virtues of idleness. They’re mostly political rants—against capitalists or communists or the rich or the system or all of the above.

From my own little industrial rant just above, you can see how easy it is to fall into that trap. The alleged “pro-idleness” thinkers say, “How awful all that enforced labor is!” They don’t say enough about how joyful idleness might be.

Russell, Black, and their rare little ilk are sort of like theologians who can paint a whiz-bang picture of hell but who can’t even attempt to conjure up an image of a heaven that’s worth aiming for. Seems it’s always more interesting to relate what you oppose than what you favor. Have you ever noticed that? Descriptions of hell, from Dante onward, are as spine-chillingly vivid as Freddie Meets Jason at the Bates Motel, but even the most authentically saintly visions of heaven sound as dull as an afternoon spent paying a courtesy call on your rich great aunt. Thus it is with writing about work and leisure. Nobody ever seems to have a good idea about what makes leisure so desirable.

I mean, once you’ve played a few rounds of golf or gotten sunburned in a hammock, what’s left? It’s like sitting around heaven twanging a harp and trying not to yawn, right?

Well, I’m here to tell you…there’s a whole lot left to leisure—that is, to true idleness. A whole, vast, unexplored universe is left. And unfortunately, it’s being left unexplored.

The virtues of idleness (including the virtue of troublemaking)

Idleness—even when it’s bad—is good.

Sometimes idleness is good precisely because it’s bad.

But before I get down to praising idleness, let me distinguish: Idleness that says, “I don’t have to lift a finger; the rest of the world should serve me” is contemptible. (Thank you, Modern Welfare State; our caveman ancestors look sophisticated by comparison.)

Enforced idleness is also not good. Sticking an otherwise productive person into a prison cell and letting him rot…well, there just aren’t words for the waste. Telling somebody he can’t work because he can’t get government permission…very bad.

Nor is idleness good when it’s unbalanced. Productive work and idleness complement each other. Some of the best idleness comes in those moments when the wood is newly chopped and you lean against the fresh woodpile and watch the snow fall in silence.

What an old-fashioned image that is! But then, the last time our culture had space for much idleness was when it was the common way of life, just as it is now for a few of us. And there’s something in those moments and those substances—wood, water, rock, greenery—that heal the heart far better than a dose of Prozac, the happy results of Viagra, or watching your team win the StuporBowl. In fact, isn’t it funny how our culture pitches “pleasure” and relief of pain at us 24 hours a day—Take that pill, buy that car, root for that team, enjoy that TV show, relax with that drink, buy that brand, ease that ache. Yet so many of the supposed “pleasures” merely pretend to temporarily relieve the chronic misery or what we’re presumed to be suffering. How come nobody ever asks: Why are we suffering so many vague, chronic ills and discontents in the first place?

But I digress. Anyway…idleness as a choice, balanced against meaningful and gratifying work…now that is a virtue we deprive ourselves of at our own peril.

Let’s go back and look at those five dire consequences of the satanic (or merely inefficient, in modern terms) “vice” of idleness covered above and turn them into their corresponding virtues. Take the last first:

Boredom. Yep, idleness—true idleness, not soccer games or cocktails by the pool, but absolute, true Just Doing Nothing—can be so boring you can almost hear your fingernails grow. This is exactly— precisely!—when idleness begins to get good. Just stay right at that spot. Don’t go turn on the TV set. Don’t call up a girlfriend. Don’t busy yourself in the woodshop (although later, much later, the woodshop may, for other reasons, become a place of joyful idleness). Just be bored for now. It isn’t fatal.

Eventually something, you can be sure of it, will bubble out of this deadening of mind and body. You’ll recall some old dream you never followed through on. You’ll start wondering how a prism works. You’ll invent a fictional alter-ego. You’ll remember a neglected knitting project from five years ago. You’ll design your dream house. Who knows?

Possibly, the thing that bubbles up out of boredom may seem negative at first: With time to think, you gradually realize your marriage has been shot for a long time but nobody wants to talk about it. You realize you’ve lost your faith in God. Or you realize that the atheism and logic you’ve always touted no longer fill a void in you. You discover you hate your job. You realize your oldest kid has a drug problem you were previously too busy to be fully aware of.

Nevertheless, wherever your mind goes, this is where boredom leads you and it’s where you need to go. You may discover unexpected talents or joys. You may just as easily discover old woes and pains you thought you’d forgotten decades ago. But you will find you. You’ll find your life and live it wherever it takes you. And even suffering may be a form of healing, as you go through a dark night of the soul to emerge into a rosy-fingered dawn (thank you, St. John of the Cross and Homer (the old one, not Simpson) for the rather florid imagery).

Please don’t be put off by this talk of spiritual or familial crises, though. Chances are good that when you just let yourself relax long enough to get through the pressures of “Oh, I really should be doing something” you’ll have a lovely, positive experience. You’ll discover how fun it is to help the kids build a fort. You’ll notice how those light hairs on the dog’s coat sparkle in the sun. You’ll breathe deep. You’ll enjoy.

Now on to the modern claims that idleness is inefficient and unprofitable. What can I say? Stuff and nonsense! Nothing, nothing, nothing in the world is more profitable than idleness in the long run.

Idleness—and again, we’re talking true just being sort of idleness (though there are times it gets mixed with more active talents)—gives birth to the most creative ideas, the greatest works of art, the coolest entrepreneurial ventures, the wildest video-game concepts, the greatest movies in the world. It gives birth to philosophy (though, sorry, so much of that has been crap). It advances mathematics. It produces the greatest “Eureka!” moments of all time. (Remember, the original “Eureka” moment came when Archimedes had given up working on his gold crown problem and was slipping into a nice, relaxing bath.) In fact, history is bursting at the seams with artists, scientists, or mathematicians relaxing after beating their brains on a problem, only to have the solution fly into their heads as if delivered by FedExing angels.

And even for us non-genius types, how many ideas for little business ventures, how many great cabin designs, how many stories, how many drawings, how many improvements to life have come out of those moments? If we only let ourselves have those moments.

And finally, on the subject of efficiency, you know darned well that when we’re beat we all work more efficiently after a long mental and physical rest. Not a hectic vacation, but a real rest.

Ah, but here is where those old moralists thunder into our brains once again. Because you see, this is also where the true troublemaking terror of idleness comes in.

The ideas you get when you’re coming out the other side of boredom into idea-nirvana just might be dangerous. Oh, not dangerous in the sense of “Let’s hang out on a street corner and mug a little old lady.”

No, strange as it sounds, the moralist powers-that-be actually thrive on those unthinking or rare products of idleness. Dealing with the bad guys justifies the moralists’ existence. Keeping us scared of the bad guys is one of the ways they keep us from asking questions—questions not about the bad guys, but about the moralists themselves and the huge institutional structures they construct to cage us.

With sufficient true idleness, we might just start asking questions about why we’ve been spending so much of our lives busily serving the interests of those who really don’t have our interests at heart. Why we consider perpetual debt to be happiness. Why we’re more interested in stuff than in people—including our own selves.

Church and state and mega-corporation and media—whatever you call them, all those forces, institutions, and agencies that want to manipulate your life for their benefit (while tossing you some tasty crumbs)—have always feared, above all, one fundamental threat to their power: that the common man might start asking some “interesting” questions and not take propaganda for an answer.

Ah. So there, you see, is why the “anti-idleacs” have been with us since civilization began, and especially since we began to serve as human cogs in a system not of our own design. Because “they” (a “they” which changes over the centuries, but can always be classed as “the establishment” or “the system”) gotta keep us moving their way or we might move in the wrong (that is our own) direction.

Knowing all that, we can go on to quickly demolish the moralists’ original three anti-idleness points: that idleness is moral vice, that idleness leads to poverty, that idleness prompts us to bop old ladies over the head for the sake of $1.57 and a tattered picture of some granny’s cat.

Sure, idleness can sometimes give a body the opportunity for moral depravity. As a writer, I indulged in a bit of that in my wicked youth, and I must say I don’t regret a bit of it. I regard it as part of the writer’s apprenticeship. Gotta live to learn. We mustn’t forget that experience teaches us far more about life than any sermon, class, or how-to book ever will.

Do some people fall into what Victorian tabloids breathlessly (and vaguely) called “debauchery” and find themselves unable or unwilling to crawl out? Well, yeah. Just as some drop dead from overwork or die of black-lung disease. Life has its casualties. But when we take responsibility for our own actions—both our idleness and activity, our sins of omission and commission—idleness is far less likely to go in the direction of depravity and irresponsibility. When idleness is a natural and healthy part of life, rather than a pleasure guiltily wrested from the clutches of dehumanizing work, it’s no longer forbidden fruit, no longer a snare to capture the weak and vulnerable.

And do some idle folk bop old ladies, and pop each other with .357s in disputes over a gram of some substance or another? Alas, yes. And people are more likely to do that in alienated, fragmented societies where work has no connection to family or neighborhood and a governmental system spawns and nurtures generations of entitled idle. In a world of healthy mixed work and idleness, you have a chance to get to know all kinds of people around you and to interact with them in all kinds of creative ways. So are you more, or less, likely to end up on the bromidic street corner, glassy-eyed from meth and ready to kick butt?

Finally, the very last moralist argument to topple: When you’re idle you may fall into the pit of poverty and drag your progeny and posterity along with you.

Yeah, well that, too, can happen. And it’s perhaps the one anti-idleness point to take seriously. The day of the loom in the living room is long gone. Say you’re sold on this idleness thing and you want only to work four hours a day, and maybe not have to work at all on the days of your choice. Uh huh. Good luck there.

For good or ill, modern society just ain’t set up to accommodate dreamers and poets and pure back-to-the-landers and parents who want to take their kids to work (and not just to insert the little darlings into the company day-care center.) So it’s a little hard to create what you want. Genuine change is always hard on the pioneers.

You can work for yourself, of course. But in this go-go-go age, it’s very hard not to end up pushing yourself so hard you have even less rest than before. (As the old entrepreneurs’ joke goes, “I’m in business for myself, so I only have to work half a day. And I even get to choose which 12 hours!”)

So unless you’re among the fortunate who’ve already found it, or already have a gift for it, idleness must be cherished and cultivated like a fragile rose. It must be carved out of hectic schedules, crafted from otherwise-filled space, and even sneaked away to as a guilty pleasure. In other words, you might have to work hard to earn the idleness that is one of your ancestors’ most natural gifts.

But don’t give up hope. It can be done with some creativity and sometimes a little help from our friends and families. And once achieved…how glorious! There it is—your own real life, your own real work, your own real pleasure all lie ahead of you. All the gift of your hard-won idleness.


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