Idleness is hard work

Lubna Abdel-Aziz , Tuesday 15 Jun 2021


Do you work to live or live to work?

If you hesitate, even for a moment, you need to re-asses the meaning of life. Society has instilled in us a work ethic that has resulted in a deep fear if we stop working.

Society prepares us for being useful: work, work hard, just work. Is not our civilisation built by the working hands of men and women? The whole family worked and even children added their labour as soon as they were able to.

Even religion scorns laziness or “sloth”, which is considered in Christianity one of the seven deadly sins, because it undermines society, and God’s plan. It also invites sin: “Satan finds some mischief for idle hands to do.”

So we often work, simply to work and not be labelled as “lazy”. That is a dirty word associated mainly with poverty and failure. A poor person is often presumed lazy no matter how hard he works.

Such is the dictum of our society. Few people choose to be lazy, yet many are accused of it.

There are numerous factors connected with the term, many of which are psychological, such as fear or lack of self- esteem. Some even fear success; they are more comfortable without it. Others fear failure. Laziness is preferable to failure, because it is a better excuse. “It is not that I failed, it is that I never tried.”

Or it could be as simple as not being able to find the work they are able or wish to do.

Laziness is their way of sabotaging themselves. “Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows”—(William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra).

The very concept of laziness presupposes the ability to choose not to be lazy, an assumption of free will.

Yet, could it be that laziness is written in our genes? Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy in order to compete or hunt or fight.

We often confuse laziness with idleness and there is much to be said in favour of idleness.

Idleness, or, to be doing nothing, does not amount to laziness. It should be valued over whatever we are doing.

Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “In Praise of Idleness” has opened up a few eyes, minds and hearts. We quote: “Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous” — a revolutionary statement, in this high-tech, fast-paced modern world where hard work is the only road to prosperity and happiness. “My opinions have undergone a revolution,” he writes. Indeed, they have been coming from one who never stopped working.

This thesis has brought about a new definition for laziness. They gave truth, or at least legitimacy, to the art of doing nothing.

Remove the guilt. Consider the source of the compulsion for the multi-tasking, the frazzled nerves, the sleepless nights, strained relationships. Most end up in clinical depression.

If we value healthy living, peace of mind, and joy in life, we might choose to remain idle because we value idleness and its products above whatever else we might be doing. Creativity comes from moments of idleness. Do not put it off one moment longer. “One of these days is none of these days.” Put down your cellphone and begin.

You will find it is not so easy. It takes mental discipline to be idle.

Some years ago, a famous incident was initiated by dean of Harvard’s undergraduate students Harry Lewis. On observing how hurried the students were, he sent them an open letter saying “Slow down. It is important to get plenty of rest and recreation in academic life”. Could that be when R&R started?

Wise men have always known that empty time is not a vacuum to be filled, rather to be freed of rubbish and rubble and cleared for lucidity and creativity. It is the most intelligent way of working.

Time is a great teacher and it often takes time to save time. The best way of using time, may well be, to waste it.

German chemist August Kukule claimed to have discovered the ring structure of benzene molecule while day-dreaming about a snake biting its own tail.

Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, Lord Melbourne extolled the virtues of “wasteful inactivity”.

In recent history, Jack Welch indisputable genius businessman, CEO of General Elelectric, spent an hour each day in what he called “looking out the window time”.

Adepts of strategic idleness use those moments to observe life, gather inspiration, maintain perspective, side-step nonsense and pettiness, and conserve health stamina for truly important things. “It takes time to save time.” Yet some find it hard to bear even short periods of idleness.

There is a fine divide between idleness and boredom. Boredom is evidence of a meaningless life. We invite thoughts and feelings we normally block out. We increase activity which shuts out the purpose of idleness.

Avoid boredom by filling life with complications and drama is not he answer. This is killing life and its many joys.

Life can be fulfilling and sweet if we make it so. Italians have, since ancient times, cherished life, love and the joys they bring: La Dolce Vita, notwithstanding the Fellini movie.

Idleness is an essential part of their day. They call it dolce far niente or, “it is sweet to do nothing.” This expression could be elevated to a philosophy, a way of life, if we all seek some “sweetness” from day to day.

 Look out the window or simply do nothing.

“To do nothing at all is the most difficult and the most intellectual.”

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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