Essay: In Praise of Idleness

I’ve always wanted to write a piece on this topic but was too lazy. I’ll hand you over instead to the talented Tim Kreider, in a delightful New York Times piece, entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap”. Don’t procrastinate in reading it!

Extracts from “The ‘Busy’ Trap”

“If you’ve live in America in the 21st century, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become a default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.”

It’s pretty obviously a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” Notice it isn’t generally the people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy, but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always the people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive, or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time, but if something was going on, to let him know and maybe, he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation: this was the invitation.

Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activites. I was a member of the latchkey generation and had three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon, time I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encylopedia to making animated films to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes, all of which provided me with important skills and insights that remain valuable to this day. Those free hours became the model for how I wanted to live the rest of my life.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’etre was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remote, so its hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion … I can’t help but wonder whether all this histronic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambtious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as Vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it, we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quietness that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration – it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done …

The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment. Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone believed as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle … My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love.

I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long walk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.”

Written as part of a series on anxiety in the New York Times’s opinion pages (2012). Tim Kreider is a cartoonist and essayist.

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