The movie Office Space (dir. Mike Judge, 1999) is twenty years old now, and yet the workaday world it depicts still feels current in many ways. At the center of it is Peter, a white-collar employee of fictional, generic Initech who detests his job and nearly everything about his life, including his neurotic girlfriend. The preposterous gag that launches the plot has Peter undergoing hypnosis just as the therapist suffers a heart attack and dies. Whether it’s the hypnosis that does the trick or the vision of a man dying while he works, Peter sleeps through his alarm the next day and keeps sleeping, deliberately, ignoring countless phone calls from boss and girlfriend (who eventually breaks up with him via answering machine). When he does go back to the office, it’s to announce that he doesn’t like his job and he’s “not going to go anymore.”
Few of the other characters in the movie can wrap their heads around Peter’s declaration that he’s not going to go to work anymore. “What are you going to do?” he’s repeatedly asked. “Nothing,” he keeps saying, “absolutely nothing.”
In the America of 2019, it’s possibly even more inconceivable to suggest that doing nothing sounds better than vacationing at an all-inclusive resort or than getting a higher-paying job with great benefits — or than just biting the bullet and “sitting in the suck.” Everywhere I look, it seems that I’m being counseled on “The Scientifically Proven Best Ways to Spend Time If You Want to Be Happy,” or offered such invaluable tips as “7 Ways Successful People Spend Their Free Time.” Lists and “hacks,” strategies and science: the rhetoric of “maximizing” and “optimizing” permeates every corner of what is portrayed as the desirable — or at least unavoidable — framework of modern life in an industrialized nation.
There’s a frenetic cheerfulness in the reporting and opining devoted to aiding readers in filling their time.
In fact, it starts to sound both ominous and panicked after a while, as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were to be heard galloping faintly in the distance, homing in on the poor fools who allow their time to pass in inefficient way, gappy and disorganized, without discernible goals. And indeed, it’s the Pale Rider in particular who drives us on in apprehension, isn’t it?
A few years ago, I was an English teacher and dorm-parent at a college-prep boarding school. When I’d taken the residential job in addition to my daytime teaching, I had known it would add to my workload, but I hadn’t fully appreciated how much. I reasoned that I would be doing different types of work, and that variety would make the amount less burdensome. I reasoned that I loved getting to know my students and supporting them in their lives outside the classroom, so the extra time spent in their company wouldn’t be like work. I reasoned that living where I worked would cut out commuting and simplify my life, which would make the extra work-time seem less tiring. All of that proved to be true, after a fashion.
Yet I still found myself, after a couple of years of that day-and-night work, reaching spring break in a kind of blurry delirium.
As so many teachers do, I anticipated the time off hungrily, plotting to work my way through all the backlog of papers to be graded and all of the planning for the remainder of the school year. I made sure to get myself completely off-campus for the entire break, retreating to my boyfriend’s house, which had become to me, since I’d moved on campus, a shining haven of quiet and calm. He had business out of town for the first day or two of my break, so I arrived with a house to myself, two dogs to walk and feed, and a shady green yard of birds and other critters to watch.
The first night, I passed in narcotic sleep unpunctuated by tripped fire-alarms or sudden illnesses or roommate-disputes-gone-epic, sleep unembroidered by even the possibility of such disturbances. The next day unfolded when I felt like getting out of bed. Aside from the dogs’ schedule of hunger and exercise — and my own — there was nothing to propel me into any particular action. All day, I did whatever I felt like doing, which was nothing of record. I might have read. I might have doodled. I might have watched a movie. I might have had thoughts about things. I might have looked out the window for a long time, or sat in the yard, or walked. The only tangible evidence I have of that day is a page in a sketchbook, a doodle that says, “Never enough hours in a day to do as much NOTHING as one would like.” Besides that, I have memory.
Of that day, I remember mainly that I felt exquisitely, blissfully happy to have done nothing, and wanted only to keep on exactly like that until I grew tired of it. But of course, that wasn’t what happened. Not then.
What fuels Americans’ Fear Of Doing Nothing? Is it FOMO fed by Instagram influencers and Facebook fantasy-lives? Probably, to some degree. But it’s also, I think, driven by Fear of Doing the Wrong Thing, along with Fear of Unspecified Consequences for Idleness, a lingering residue of a Protestant work ethic that has long peppered its encomiums of the virtue of work with vague threats that “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Without any real evidence to support it, the idea flourishes that humans who don’t occupy their time “productively” are doing it wrong. Whether that wrongness is moral or spiritual or just ignorant depends on what you’re reading and what you came to the table believing in the first place.
But it hardly matters, since most of us seem to be swept along with the current of busyness, feeling compelled to justify to our friends, our relatives, strangers, and ourselves how well we’re using our time, how we’re always running out of time to cram all the good things we’re doing into, how much we would give for some time to just relax — but alas! we humblebrag, we’re just too busy to do any more than a multitasking staycation, maybe, or a long weekend. Can’t afford to get too far behind, you know.
I felt it, too. And I still feel it, even a year after I quit that round-the-clock job to work much, much less and from home, cutting expenses, simplifying, disentangling myself from busyness. I don’t have to get out of bed at a particular time, yet I feel a nagging of my conscience if I sleep “too late.” I largely set my own deadlines, yet I still sometimes scold myself for being lazy or slow or unfocused. The acculturation of a lifetime is hard to break — which is probably why you see so many articles about retirees returning to the workforce for “encore careers” in order to feel happy or satisfied.
That same acculturation makes it tempting to counter one sort of “advice for living your best life” with another, to present my thoughts as an argument that my idea about how to live a good life is the right one. But that’s exactly what, in the last year, I’ve come around to believing I need to resist. The ethos of making the “right” choices or doing things the “best” or the “most” can be both pushy and judgy, and neither of those lends itself to the cultivation of personal satisfaction, in my view, unless the only way to feel satisfied is to believe that you’re better than someone else.
Furthermore, specific tips and strategies assume that we all have similar situations and resources. For all sorts of reasons, what’s working for me cannot work for many others, and vice versa. It’s sort of like all that “lose weight fast” advice that tells me to stop drinking my calories and to eat whole grains. I’ve followed both of those guidelines all my life and hey, guess what? I could still stand to lose ten pounds: what am I supposed to do? The answer: I’m going to have to figure it out for my own self.
The quest is philosophical then, rather than practical. For me, at least, the cheerful, anxious pressure of “best” and “most,” of “maximized” and “optimized,” isn’t the answer to the question of what kind of life I want to live. And although I can’t articulate, at least not yet, precisely what that life entails, the instrument that has opened up a path in the direction of discovering it is granting myself, sometimes, permission to do nothing. To accomplish nothing. To go nowhere. To talk to no one. To abstain from counting, logging, posting, liking, replying, tagging.
In that space that is as close as I can get to an intersection of mental space and physical space with no parameters or requirements, there’s room for whatever emerges from within and room to notice whatever quietly surrounds me. It’s what I imagine Walt Whitman meant in “Song of Myself” when he said “I loaf and invite my soul, / I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Loafing. Nearly always an accusation of idleness, loafing seems to me, now more than ever, vital to well-being. How can I hear my soul otherwise, through all the twitter and chat and text? I resolve that I owe no one proof of the worth of my time more than to myself.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.