One of my most treasured childhood images is of my grandfather (we called him Pap) sitting at the kitchen table with either a cup of black coffee or a Pepsi, in shorts or long pants, depending on the season, in an undershirt, just staring out the window, doing nothing.
Sometimes a baseball game would be on the small tv, quietly. In my earliest memories, because it was the 70s, he’d be smoking a cigarette. Later on, and before he finally quit smoking, my Mimi banished the smoking to the garage in winter or the back porch in summer. The smoking doesn’t matter. It’s the sitting, deep in thought, the staring, that comes to me when I think of him.
It’s not that my Pap didn’t work or have commitments or hobbies. He did. He worked long overnight hours delivering bread to supermarkets, he spent time with his family and friends, tinkered, built things, mowed the lawn, played golf at the community golf course (where he mowed the greens in exchange for comped green fees).
I’m Definitely Not My Grandfather
As someone who has always felt the need to fill my time – to never feel bored or lazy or unproductive – I’ve often called up this mental image of my Pap when I need a reminder to slow down. When I think of him, I know I have a choice in the matter of spreading myself too thin.
For all of the things the Covid-19 pandemic has taken from us, many of us can reflect that we have also been given something too. In my case, the gift has been time. This gift means I’m thinking back on my Pap a lot lately.
I juggle three professional roles that generally work out to be a complete 40-hour work week. I’m a mom and a partner as well. However, our international lifestyle has always been structured around me being the “drop everything” parent.
I’m the one who runs the kids to their activities, playdates, and outings. The one who volunteers when the school calls or goes to the doctor’s appointment when there is an unexpected illness. It sounds old-fashioned, but you learn quickly as an expat how necessary it is to have a system like this. My husband’s work hours are unpredictable, mine are more flexible. When you don’t have family around to help out and you may or may not know your neighbors – that safety net of having one parent to respond to a crisis is a must.
Yet with Coronavirus our lives have become less scheduled. As the activities have faded, so has our need to get up early on the weekends or squeeze in a trip to school between work, dinner and bedtime. For the first time in a long time, I actually have time to meditate, enjoy doing something creative, or read a book without feeling like I’m shirking my duties as a productive member of society.
And yet, I still struggle with the feeling that I must be lazy. I know I’m not actually lazy, but my habits around “doing” over “being” are deeply engrained and cultural. If I have time on my hands to sing old songs with my husband or learn to paint with watercolors, surely I have time to….clean, create new projects, single-handedly eliminate the world’s inequities.
Doing Nothing Is Difficult
I doubt I’m alone. And I doubt I’m the only one who finds even her efforts to “be” more and “do” less can succumb to persistent patterns.
For example, my instinct, as the Coronavirus year turns into the Coronavirus two-years, is to embrace this extra space by filling my down time with “down time” stuff. Like, maybe I should schedule time to read, put it on my calendar to give it real credit. Perhaps, instead of just practicing painting with watercolors, I should take a class. Make it more legit. I meditate most days, but if I paid money and joined a sangha – that would really mean I’d committed to doing nothing. I’d be all in. Maximizing my nothing. The best, most productive downtime ever. I win.
Do you do this too? Do you feel the pull to legitimize the extra space you may have by stuffing new things in, making even enjoyable, relaxing things fit a narrative of productivity?
This is such a common tendency. We face a lot of pressure to make each moment count.
I’m really ready to break this habit though. I know enough now to know that it doesn’t serve me. Plus, the vague anxious feeling I feel when I’m not doing anything is definitely a sign that something needs tending to.
So, right now, in my own life, I’m trying to reevaluate my relationship with what counts. The first step is to practice a little bit of niksen – the Dutch art of doing nothing. However, I also want to really embrace the entire process of doing nothing. I’m curious not just about the act of slowing down, but the experience of building a better relationship with what I find there.
How Can I Do Nothing, Better?
What do I learn about myself when I have to just notice? What does it feel like to do nothing? If I stick with doing nothing past the point of comfort, what new things do I learn about how I want to live my life? If I do nothing more often, what unexpected pleasures will come my way?
I don’t want to just make “doing nothing” feel like it’s a legitimate use of my time. This year, I’m setting an intention to do nothing by literally doing nothing. Not always, but sometimes. More times than before.
Like my Pap, I want to stare out the window, lost in thought. I want to sit long enough that my legs fall asleep, or I doze off under a blanket on the couch. I want to go for a walk without my phone from time to time, turning around to head back home only when I’m ready…whenever that may be. Read with no intention other than to absorb the words on the page. Paint whatever, with no plan for who sees the ever-growing stack of art.
You may have intentions for doing nothing too. I wonder what questions you need to ask in advance so that doing nothing becomes a way of being, not just another box you force yourself into.
Perhaps through the practice of doing nothing, you embody these words by poet John O’Donohue,
I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.