Don't rage at the idle - learn from them

September 16, 2008|By Gerry McCarthy

LINDSAY, Ontario - 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, Mr. Lewis wrote an open letter to first-year undergraduate students after observing that they were disciples of hurry.

In his letter, titled "Slow Down," Mr. 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 wrote. "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 Mr. 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 that 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 people 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 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. This article originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.

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