Doing Nothing or Nothing Doing?

A few years ago I wrote a piece for Labor Day suggesting that it become a “do-nothing day.”  It was a bit satirical but of course had a serious point as satire does.  I had little hope that my recommendation would be adopted.  Now that we are suffering from coronavirus panic and people are being told to shelter in their homes, many are no doubt suffering withdrawal symptoms from having to slow down. After all, how many cookies can you bake, television and movies watch, liquor drink, emails and texts send and receive, toilet paper rolls count, etc.?

I am well aware that this enforced idleness has inflicted enormous economic damage on regular working people world-wide, as I believe it is meant to do. The psychological damage is incalculable. The super-rich will no doubt profit mightily from the coronavirus crisis while the poor and middle-classes, small business owners, and the elderly will suffer greatly. The government will use people’s taxes to bail out big banks and corporations for whom they front. Inflicted suffering has a way of culling the herd and controlling the survivors.  It’s an old story continually updated.

Such suffering notwithstanding, I think the points I made in that do-nothing article are worth repeating and so I will repeat them in an edited way in what follows.  A do-nothing day has now become weeks.

I think it important that we create a chrysalis of light and hope in these dark times.  Embracing contemplation might even breed resistance to the evil forces that run the show.

In a country with a Mount Rushmore that celebrates the ruthless and frenetic westward expansion, it might be a bit naïve to suggest do-nothing days are a good thing.  I have nothing against laboring men and women working hard and constantly. I am a laborer myself, and national holidays like Labor Day are great – so many sales for stuff no one needs, and far too many people working on an ostensible holiday.  But I have this ridiculous dream of a time when everyone just does nothing for a while.

To rush less, to idle, and to do nothing sounds so un-American, yet it might be a solution to many of our country’s problems.  Quixotic as it may sound, if every person in the country could be convinced to lay aside his compulsive busyness for a while, this not-doing would paradoxically accomplish so much.

Nothing is a funny word, as Shakespeare well knew.  There is so much to it; “much ado” as he put it.  It is the great motivator.  While it frightens people, it is also the spur to creativity and spiritual renewal.

Samuel Beckett once astutely said:

Nothing is more real than nothing.

It is the void, the womb, the empty space out of which we come and live out our days.  It is the background silence for all our noise.  Like the rain, it is purely gratuitous.  Such a gift should not be shunned.

By doing nothing I mean the following: no work, just free play; no travel, except by foot or bicycle or by car, if necessary, to get groceries; no use of technology of any sort except stoves for cooking meals to share; no household repairs or projects; no buying or selling of any kind, except for food, including thinking of buying and selling.  You get the point.

This not-doing doing could be called dreaming or simply being.  It’s a tough task indeed, but fitting for the paradoxical creatures that we are. I realize that cemeteries are the only place where the inmates literally do nothing, but we are not there yet.  And anyway, as the word’s origin attests, the inmates are only sleeping.

Nationally, all businesses would be closed except for food stores; factories would be idled, planes and trains grounded.  Only emergency services – hospitals, police, etc. would be allowed to operate.  Quixotic, yes, but our national leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, are surely apt to agree since it would add more days to their schedules of doing “nothing.”

Making my point in a slightly different way, Mark Twain said:

Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself.

Think of how much we would accomplish by doing nothing!  People might dream and think; they might hear birds singing or even sing themselves; they might have real conversations; they might relearn that old trick of putting one foot in front of the other called walking; they might feel the peace of a wild idleness; our ecological matrix would have a brief chance to catch its breath; a massive amount of energy would be saved and little carbon would be spewed into the atmosphere (a rather startling statistic could be inserted here).  The benefits are endless – and all from doing nothing.

The immediate downside would be millions of mental breakdowns of the do-something addicts.  Their agony from trying to do nothing would be excruciating.  A friend from another country where they still take siestas and celebrate doing nothing was kind enough to suggest a rapid resolution to this mass madness. Kill these do-somethings.  Since they are not good for nothing while alive, she said, and they can’t help contaminating the earth with their compulsive busyness, why keep them around.

She advocated enlisting the help of the Pentagon for this work since killing is their business and they are good at it.  While acknowledging the aptness of her suggestion, I told her I thought the Pentagon was much too busy killing foreigners to get involved in a domestic caper at this time.  It also raises a number of other practical problems, the biggest being how and where to bury so many busybodies all at once.

Furthermore, people who have so utterly forgotten their childhood’s lovely ability to do nothing are far too tough and set in their skins to be used as food, as another wag of my acquaintance suggested.  Even trying a little tenderizer on their frazzled flesh wouldn’t work.

After all, when Jonathan Swift had that profound idea of how to solve the Irish famine problem, he was suggesting soft and tender one-year-olds be slaughtered and sold to the wealthy since they would make “delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled.”

But older, compulsive, do-something people, set in their ways, while seemingly organic – a good thing these days, I’m told – are tough and sinewy, which is not a very appetizing thought.  I doubt there would be much demand for their meat.

Therefore, in all due respect, let me suggest another way to proceed.  I think it best to let the eternal doers go mad on do-nothing days.  They will bounce back when the go-go days are reinstated but should eventually get so discouraged if the mandatory days of isolation are reinstated that they will do us the favor of then committing suicide.  That way they’ll get what they didn’t want – a quite long stretch of days doing nothing, if eternity has days.  And the survivors can live guilt-free, since all they did was nothing to stop them.

As you can see, the downsides to do-nothing days are small compared to the benefits.  But convincing people to adopt my plan won’t be easy.  Long ago I stopped giving advice to friends and family since whatever I suggested seemed to encourage them to do the opposite.  Yet here I go again, suggesting the benefits of doing nothing.  So I will desist in the name of the law of reversed effort.

I really don’t want to organize a movement to impose this not-doing on people.  I don’t want to establish a cult and be a cult leader. We already have one running things.  I’m really too busy for that.  My schedule is too packed for such a job.  Maybe you have time.  I have too much to do.

I say, “Nothing doing.”

I was once rushing to take groceries to my elderly mother when I ran into the sharp metal edge of a stop sign. Stunned and coming to on my back on the pavement with blood dripping down my face, it bemused me to think how fast I was stopped.  Ever since, I’ve been on the go, laboring away. Keeping very busy.

Nothing showed me his face.  Fear seized me.

Yet here and there I have this dream of do-nothing days.  It’s the dream of a ridiculous man, isn’t it?





9 thoughts on “Doing Nothing or Nothing Doing?”

  1. Hi Ed,
    Wanted to share a favorite Spanish proverb.
    How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward.

  2. Hi Ed,

    Your essay is very appropriate to my current situation. Recently, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to jump off the hamster wheel after 35 years of career work. As my day of departure neared, the question most often asked was, “What will I do?”

    As a young man, I never questioned certain things…school, work, career, homeownership, the pursuit of money, debt, etc. It was all as true to me as the beating of my heart was. Indeed, over the generations, it was likely written into my genetic code.

    Is this condition, to always be doing, unique only to us as Americans? Or, is it a human state of being, perhaps consistent with the advent of civilization? Aren’t we considered less of a person…a failure, if we’re not always striving toward some goal?

    Ed, a theme that I find consistent in much of your writing is the idea of the illusion that is our modern society. Could the act of always “doing” be central to that illusion?

    Although I’m retired from full time work, certain responsibilities continue on, and so my “doing” persists, Happily now, much of it is on my own terms. That affords me, what I consider to be certain luxuries.

    Occasionally, in the late afternoon…my favorite time of day, when the sun’s angle is low, and it’s light thick with warm color, I’ll stop myself, and with all deliberateness and forethought, marvel at the play of light and shadow while embracing the waning light of the day.

    John Lennon expresses it best:

    “When I tell them that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall. Don’t you miss the big time boy, you’re no longer on the ball?”

  3. I totally agree with your current article on “Doing Nothing”. I have been writhing a Journal of sorts about how I feel on this current issue that we our facing as well as past events and possible future events to come. It let’s me express my emotions and feelings without hurting others. It also a good stress release. I wish what was truly going on would be made more public than it is. Then maybe more people would stick up for what is right instead of spending so much time in what is wrong with the world.

    1. Hi Marianne,
      The journal is a great idea. I have been doing that for a very long time and it is an important way to converse with yourself and invisible others. A form of meditation. Thank you for writing here and there. Pax, Ed

  4. I have a bird (/squirrel) feeder outside my window, and it is the best show in town. The birds are beautiful, but the squirrels are hilarious. One of them is a dear friend. She is nine years old this year, and I when call her name out the back door, she usually shows up within five minutes. I keep a bucket of peanuts in the house- she helps herself. On hot summer days, she comes in the house and flops down under the chair where I am typing or reading. She doesn’t let me pet her, but she is the perfect pet: she takes care of herself. Someday she will not show up and I will wander the neighborhood to find her dead body, and mourn her.
    When she first visited as a baby rat-tailed rodent with her sibling who was missing part of an ear, I called him “Vincent”, and she was named “Theo”.
    I feel so bad for modern children whose lives are scripted to the minute with no time at all for doing nothing. They are being groomed for the exploitation that will govern their lives until they don’t show up, or are booted for becoming inefficient (“old”). When these kids come to my house, the first thing they want to do is feed the squirrels, and watch the birds. The parents wince: “Watch out! They will bite you!” (They never have.)
    Nature, even in a city, makes doing nothing something really worth doing.

    1. BKO, I love your squirrel story. When I was a boy, I used to feed our backyard squirrel from my hand. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me not to and the squirrel and I became friends over time. And the birds, what we we do without them. I often think of what the world would be like without them and realize it would be terrible. Scripted children devoid of nature, living all days on electronic devices. Maybe that’s part of this coronavirus agenda. Pax, Ed

  5. I have similar sentiments, Ed, about what life has become in The Great Gerbil Wheel and how life should be so much more…and less. But let me take a moment, suddenly more available, to nitpick with one sentence in your post. “The government will use people’s taxes to bail out big banks and corporations for whom they front.” No doubt the government will do this because they are such fronts, but the government won’t be doing it with “people’s taxes.” For several years, I have explored a new macroeconomic perspective called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). I’ve become convinced of its cogency and thus all things economic (on the federal level) have been turned upside down in my mind (in other words, it’s not tax and spend but spend and tax). By far the best, quickest, and most entertaining intro to MMT is Stephanie Kelton’s “Angry Birds” video on YouTube. Will we ever have a better opportunity to spend an hour or so to check it out and make up our own mind?

  6. There is a perfect solution to your acquaintance’s suggestion: leave just enough do-somethings alive to bury the dead do-somethings. That way their days would be filled to bursting with meaningful activity.
    On a more realistic note, my sister works retail. The big box hardware store is swamped with parents and kids – all saying the same thing: we didn’t have anything to do so we came here. George W Bush would, I believe, send these staunch souls his warmest regards.

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