(And one that applies to all other days, too.)
I distrust the perpetually busy; always have. The frenetic ones spinning in tight little circles like poisoned rats. The slower ones, grinding away their fourscore and ten in righteousness and pain. They are the soul-eaters.
--Mark Slouka, “Quitting the Paint Factory”
I MAY LOSE my job this fall. I put the odds at 50 percent. I work hard and management has promoted me twice but the pandemic swings its wrecking ball at entire sectors of the economy and journalism, like the airline and hotel industries, has been leveled by it.
I’m somehow sanguine about getting furloughed or laid off. I shouldn’t be: I’m the sole provider for my family of six. But I’m also almost 40 and look back on my career at the times when I was one of those spinning poisoned rats. Maybe you’ve been one too: under-appreciated, overbooked, answering emails on weekend nights.
I don’t want to be like that.
I see my potential unemployment as something like a clean break from past behaviors. But even before I map out that contingency—before I pass into what might be the longest winter of my life—I’m trying to change my ways. It’s more than organizing my days better, of literally scheduling down time. I’m instead questioning everything I do, everything we all do.
It’s both a reality and sad commentary of the American experience that even barricaded in our homes The Cult of Work intrudes. All around us are tips to impress your boss over Slack or forbid your own children from ever entering the at-home “work station.” At the end of each long day you can search Amazon for one of the 95,000 books on offer to make your work hours—increasingly your waking hours—even more “productive.” Since the pandemic, the percentage of people logging into their jobs or answering emails between midnight and 3 am has reached record highs.
This is madness. We all know it. What’s worse is to acknowledge, as anthropologist David Graeber has, that half of all jobs are b.s. and serve no true purpose to society. If Calvin Coolidge had it right a century ago that the chief business of the American people is business, the chief business of today is busyness. The technology that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted would liberate us from work has instead chained us to it. On too many days—when tasks beget tasks and emails and Slack messages distract from the tasks but claim a similar urgency—I can’t break the bond of those chains.
But what if I tried?
I'M A TYPE A PERSONALITY. I need to admit that first, because I have a tendency to compound the problem. I have the full-time job but feel compelled to write books and host a podcast and teach online courses and, well, blog here. Some days I can rationalize my schedule. Some days I can thrive within it. Some days—and sometimes whole weeks—I feel like I’m doing everything wrong, like my pursuits are out of alignment with my purpose, or rather that my pursuits have swallowed whole any larger purpose—like creating meaningful work or being a good example for my kids—that might guide my life. Some days, because of the writing I love to do, I feel like I’ve found an escape hatch out of the rat race and some days, because of that same work, I feel like I’ve designed for myself an even more intricate maze.
And it’s in those moments that I see it, out there on the backyard grass, lapping up the afternoon sun:
I see laziness as a man who’s tanner than me, with a paunch and the confidence to walk around in a speedo, so assured is Laziness in his life’s choices. He’s holding in his left hand a tumbler of tequila on the rocks. He’s smiling.
He never speaks to me but never needs to. His actions say everything: This could all be yours.
What Laziness is offering isn’t laziness exactly but something better: Gratitude. Gratitude for what I already have. When I scoff at that and tell Laziness he’s being ridiculous, Laziness points to a poem he’s reading, the only poem he ever reads. He’s got a copy of it on the Adirondack chair next to his sweating tumbler. It’s a story that Kurt Vonnegut told in verse about his friend and fellow author, Joseph Heller. The true story goes like this:
One day a billionaire invites Vonnegut and Heller to a party at the rich man’s estate, on Shelter Island. The writers get there and it is as you’d expect: expansive views, expensive wines, the best of everything. Vonnegut says to Heller, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel Catch 22 has earned in its entire history?”
Heller says, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
“What on earth could that be, Joe?”
“The knowledge that I have enough.”
It’s why Laziness smiles each time I see him.
THE IRONY OF LAZINESS' LESSON is that it takes work. I’ve started to journal the last few months about what I do have—a healthy family (no small thing in 2020), and some prospects outside my job should I lose it—and I’ve learned to go on long walks to put any frustration in its proper place. This work leads me to what Laziness wanted the whole time, the chief byproduct of gratitude: idleness.
Idleness isn’t just an appreciation for what I possess but a state of mind that invites in the world’s wonders. Idleness allows me on my morning walks to notice the eastern sky pinkening just before the sun limns the treeline. Idleness has me fishing more with my sons and playing guitar with my daughter. Idleness leaves me muttering to myself these days, and more than I ever have in my life, Now where did I put my phone?
It is obvious idleness is good for me—the only truly good thing in life, as Kierkegaard once argued—and yet I remain suspicious of it. I come from a long line of farmers who lived the Protestant Work Ethic, and who taught their children that the point of life is labor, and any joy one finds comes through it. “Be diligent in your callings and spend no time in idleness,” Richard Baxter wrote in A Christian Directory. “Perform your labors with a holy mind, to the glory of God, and in obedience of his commands.” I can almost hear my Germanic forebears shouting in unison: “DAMN STRAIGHT.”
This wariness toward an idle life predates the record of my family line, and even Christianity. In The Odyssey Homer has Odysseus and his crew happen upon the Lotus-eaters, hospitable sorts who offer our heroes strong brew. The crew loves the stuff and agrees they’d rather stay among the Lotus-eaters and enjoy the pleasures of each day than return home with Odysseus to the island of Ithaca. Odysseus, a stand in for your boss or maybe (if you were raised like me) your conscience, frogmarches his men back onto the ship and then ties them to its benches. The ship casts off, the men literally bound to their tasks, and with each row of their oars the simple pleasures of the idle wonderland shrinks on the horizon.
How glum. How prescient. We live in an America today that works more hours than all other developed countries and has more stress-related illnesses than them too, that doesn’t take what few vacation days are on offer, and that sees idleness as boredom and boredom as the worst thing ever: We literally prefer electric shock to being alone with our thoughts.
So idleness is a tough sell here. If I am to benefit from it, and if you are too, we’ll need to put it in terms we can understand. Here goes:
Idleness will actually increase your productivity.
In his short but revealing book, Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, Andrew Smart studies the brain scans neuroscientists study, and sees that certain portions of the brain draw more blood to them when we concentrate on a task. This is to be expected. What’s unexpected is that when subjects in a study relax, unwind, think about nothing “important,” other parts of the brain activate and create an increase in blood flow. These other parts are known as the Resting State Network, and scientists were baffled to find that the RSN controls nothing less than cognitive efficiency and creativity. “Those elusive ‘Aha!’ moments,” Smart writes, “occur more often in people who allow their brain’s resting state network time to reverberate.” The outside-the-box thinking that so many businesses crave comes easiest, it turns out, when people aren’t working at all.
History brims with examples of mankind’s biggest advancements occurring in moments of idleness. Newton discovered the principle of gravity daydreaming under an apple tree. Descartes, staring at a fly on the ceiling, came up with the X and Y axes of the coordinate grid. Thomas Edison, who produced more products than anyone in part because he turned invention into a mechanized system, valued idleness above all, according to a 19th century newspaper profile of Edison’s lab and its workers:
“Sometimes they wait for hours in idleness, but at the laboratory such idleness is considered far more profitable than any interference…”
Far more profitable. It’s counter-intuitive, especially for those of us raised on the catechism of labor as a gift to God. But even the stern Old Testament God wanted us to enjoy what 21st Century workers view as an obscene amount of leisure: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow.” (Exodus 23:10-11.)
A whole year off?! No one actually does that.
Stefan Sagmeister does that. He runs a design studio in New York and every seventh year he closes shop and takes a sabbatical. He did it because he wanted some of his retirement years during his working years but found that the 12 months of idle reflection were the most productive time for his company. “Basically everything we’ve done in the seven years following the first sabbatical came out of the thinking of that one year,” he said in his TED talk. It is in the pauses of life, he argues, where we can assess and What if? and experiment.
It’s the pauses of life that change our lives. My favorite story, in fact the titular story, from Slouka’s essay “Quitting the Paint Factory” concerns Sherwood Anderson. Before he was a novelist Anderson was a copywriter for an ad agency who then saw that the real money wasn’t in making ads for businesses but owning a business himself. At 36 he became the proprietor and general manager of a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio. “There was only one problem,” Slouka writes. “He couldn’t seem to shake the notion that the work he was doing (writing circulars extolling the virtues of his line of paints) was patently absurd, undignified; that it amounted to a kind of prison sentence.”
On November 27th, 1912, in the middle of dictating a sentence to his secretary, Anderson simply stopped. He stared at his secretary. She stared back, wondering what was wrong. At last he said, “I have been wading in a long river and my feet are wet.”
He walked out of his office and then his building and, never slowing, turned east toward Cleveland. “Four days later he was recognized and taken to a hospital suffering from exhaustion,” Slouka tells us, and now I’ll let him take over:
Anderson claimed afterward that he had encouraged the impression that he might be cracking up in order to facilitate his exit, to make it comprehensible. “The thought occurred to me that if men thought me a little insane they would forgive me if I lit out,” he wrote, and though we will never know for sure if he suffered a nervous breakdown that day or only pretended to one (his biographers have concluded that he did), the point of the anecdote is elsewhere: Real or imagined, nothing short of madness would do for an excuse.
Anderson himself, of course, was smart enough to recognize the absurdity in all this, and to use it for his own ends; over the years that followed, he worked his escape from the paint factory into a kind of parable of liberation, an exemplar for the young men of his age. It became the cornerstone of his critique of the emerging business culture: To stay was to suffocate, slowly; to escape was to take a stab at “aliveness.” What America needed, Anderson argued, was a new class of individuals who “at any physical cost to themselves and others” would “agree to quit working, to loaf, to refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world.”
Is it any surprise that in his slower pace Anderson found a greater productivity? He wrote 12 books of nonfiction, eight novels, four short story collections, and two poetry collections.
“He fled in order to find himself,” the novelist Herbert Gold wrote of Anderson, “to become beautiful and clear.”
That’s the real point of what happened after Anderson’s four day hike to Cleveland: It’s not just the work you can create but the life you can live. A life of I get to instead of I have to. It’s that dreaded dutifulness I’m trying to avoid as I enter middle age, and so I reread Slouka’s essay often, to remind myself of its lesson:
Idleness is a choice that is always available to us.
I suppose I should stop. A new friend in a Speedo just invited me to join him for a drink in the backyard. I’ve been meaning to take him up on it.
New to my blog? I'm an award-winning journalist and best-selling author. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.
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