Monday, December 29, 2014

The Art of Doing Nothing

Last night, as is common for me, I sat on the couch in an unlit living room while letting my mind wander to this and that. A few friends are currently staying at the house, and one happened to notice me in there. “Richard, it’s dark in there! Are you feeling okay? Is something wrong?” she asked, genuinely concerned. I explained, apparently unconvincingly, that everything was fine and this was just something I do. I didn’t add that I had assumed it was something everybody did. Once upon a time it was – by nearly everybody anyway. Nowadays, though, we are so focused on our laptops, iPhones, Playstations, satellite TVs, tablets, and (if we absolutely must divert our eyes from a screen) earphones that sitting alone in the dark without any electronics probably is a bit weird.
Back in 1928 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, prognosticating a world in 2028 with an economy grown sevenfold; after the 1929 Crash, he said that the Depression, bad as it was, was temporary and that his prediction stood. On the production numbers, he has been proven right. 2014 US per capita GDP is up sixfold in real terms over 1928 and may well reach sevenfold by 2028.  Keynes’ goofed, though, in another prediction. He assumed that workers, as incomes rose, would continue to trade some money for leisure time as they had done for the previous century; he figured that by 2028 the workweek would be only 15 hours. They didn’t and it won’t be. The growth in leisure stalled 40 years ago and shows little sign of expanding again anytime soon. The reasons for this are manifold, but best left for a separate essay.
Nonetheless, leisure time is much longer than in 1928 (if not 1978), and some of Keynes’ worries are still interesting. The idle rich, he noted, “failed disastrously” at occupying themselves satisfyingly, and he was concerned that the rest of the population would be no better at it. Only those who could practice and enjoy “the art of life itself” could avoid a loss of purpose akin to a nervous breakdown. In practice most of us have avoided both the artistry of life and nervous breakdowns. We have consumed our time instead with mindless busyness in the real world and virtual activities in the cyber world – frequently at the same time.  If all else fails, we can work longer; our bosses won’t mind, even when we’re self-employed.
If this is enough to keep one happy, so be it. (The evidence is that it isn’t, by and large, but that too is best left to a separate essay.) The real world with real people (“meatspace”) has much to recommend it, but let me recommend one weird old-fashioned form of solitary virtual activity, too. Turn off the smart phone, sit in the dark and let the mind wander. It’s a good way to become conscious of one’s own thoughts.  They’re there. Really.


  1. Rumination is a luxury for sure. I used to think about that all the time when I was working steady. You can't believe what a cacophonous barrage of sound and input that was when I was on the job. The loud radio blaring in one's face was the main offense, which kept us in contact with the train dispatcher (like a flight controller). I'll admit I'm as hooked up to the world as the next person, and generally have either the TV or radio on. Living single I think it helps break the silence, though I can still think under or over it.

    1. I love the Sound of Silence -- both the condition and the Simon & Garfunkel song. But yeah, there also are times to crank up Halestorm on the stereo.