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An Ode to Idleness

Posted on Friday, April 17, 2009 in Me

Begun on April 10

I hope that you, gentle reader, do not really expect to see an ode here. That would mean work on my part, and this post is all reflecting on idleness and the good its done me. So no ode. At least not yet. I am, however, going to disagree with Mahatma Gandhi and Benjamin Franklin. So that might make continued reading worth your while.

Today I reflected on the happiness, perhaps even joy, I’ve been feeling the last few days. I wanted to know the source. I feel gratitude. I feel at ease, both with myself and with others. I feel forgiving. These are virtues which do not visit me often enough. So why did they stop by now? Was it the coming of spring? Could it just be more sun and longer days? My friends seem to be greeting the season with bouts of depression, but I don’t recall feeling this good for so long in any of the previous few springs. So I think this is not just a Spring Break visitation.

I intuit that these feelings of wealth and contentment and rightness flow directly from my continued idleness. But could that be possible?

An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.
– English proverb

Isn’t this what you learned, too? I learned this lesson so well that I used to start getting fidgety and nervous if I took over an hour for lunch. I learned that the human spirit is in constant peril and can only be saved through duty and service to others. I was taught to despised the (perceived) idleness of both the poor and the wealthy are to be despised.

Idleness is the Dead Sea that swallows all virtues.
– Benjamin Franklin

Mr. Franklin wasn’t a Puritan, but he sure sounds like one here. I’m not sure he was the most virtuous of men. Is it possible that his need to be constantly in motion produced both his inventive genius and his “illegitimate” son? Could he have been driven by a need for fame and attention? Are those virtuous drives? Perhaps he really was simply industrious and would have been put on Ritalin if he were alive today.

Purity of mind and idleness are incompatible.
– Mahatma Gandhi

So does this mean that if I’m quietly listening to the robins sing and luxuriating in the feel of a sweet, warm breeze crossing my checks, my mind is somehow soiled? If I’m feeling generous and forgiving in my silence and my stillness, am I somehow deluded and confused? I’m sorry, sir, but I disagree.

Idleness is sweet, and its consequences are cruel.
– John Quincy Adams

It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.
Virginia Woolf

I’m more inclined to believe these quotes. It’s true that if I’m not employed and bringing home an income, I could suffer consequences. In fact, I anticipated that and worried a bit about it before I quit my job. I’m going to have to give up buying plants this spring and I’ve already given up eating several meals out each week. But these have not been cruel consequences.

It’s the unexpected results of idleness that have been both cruel and enlightening. I have had nightmares about work; and since I’m not immediately getting up and going to work, I have the time to examine and feel more deeply those dreams. I get their full effect. When idleness challenged me to act creatively, I learned just how much I fear that side of myself. When pushing myself towards productivity, I can ignore that fear and many other fears. I can much more easily ignore myself.

Idleness is to be dead at the limbs but alive within.
– Fijian proverb

This is where the cruelty or grace will appear: within. It’s such an unknown landscape, this self within me. I spend so little quality time with it as an adult. Yet it’s very much alive and changing–a wondrous landscape of desires, tastes, prejudices, delights, worries, and joys. You might have a better map of the terrain than I do. You can watch me avoid an obvious swamp that I politely ignore and remain willfully ignorant of. You might know of a playful sea that I turn my eyes from in order to stay firmly planted on the shoreline.

I feel like I’m now returning to the childish or childlike (you make the choice of word, dear reader) fascination with my interior moods and movements. I feel like I’m watching myself grow. I’m not on my way to being a grownup, but I am on my way to being an orphan. And that’s just as important and as big a developmental step.

When idle, I can wonder about my own value to my household and to the world, but I’m less inclined to do this when I’m not rushing about trying to prove my worth to an employer or spouse. I’m more inclined to act–when I do act–out of a spark of energy or out of a desire to give back in gratitude. Both the spark nor the gratitude are discovered in the times of idleness.

In idleness there is a perpetual despair.
– Thomas Carlyle

Again, I must disagree with an esteemed gentleman. Perhaps if I did not enjoy being with myself, if I could only find fault with myself and my surroundings, this would be true. But I’m discovering just the opposite. I see beauty and creativity around me. I see hardships ahead, yes, but I do not despair over them. And it’s only because I’ve had the time to reflect and notice the rhythms of life that I’m able to be so optimistic. I can feel my own strengths when I am idle. I can recognize the supports around me only when I’m not rushing around trying to ensure their stability. I’m discovering just how little I need to be contented.

Since you’ve been so good as to read this far, I am going to leave you with quotes which better resonate with my recent experience.

In producers, loafing is productive; and no creator, of whatever magnitude, has ever been able to skip that stage, any more than a mother can skip gestation.
– Jacques Barzun

To loaf is a science, to loaf is to live.
– Honore de Balzac

A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.” – Victor Hugo

Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.
– Soren Kierkegaard

Idleness is only a coarse name for my infinite capacity for living in the present.
– Cyril Connolly

It is better to have loafed and lost, than never to have loafed at all.
– James Thurber

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