I went to the bookstore the other day, (why does it seem like all of my posts begin with this sentence? Why do none of them begin with the sentence, “I went a-whorin’ the other night?) seeking out Marcus Aurelius’ classic treatise on stoic self-relflection, Mediations. As I am often wont to do, I found several other interesting reads and sat down to flip through some of these other books. When I sat down, I caught -- out of the corner of my eye -- the cover a book titled, quite simply: “Doing Nothing.” I could over-dramatize my discovery of this book as providential -- a beacon of slacker hope beckoning the ship adrift that is my mind towards, well, further drifting -- but I am way too lazy to do that. So, suffice it to say, that I just stumbled onto it.
Upon closer inspection I discovered that the full title of this book is Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America by Tom Lutz. Now, I am not one so self-aggrandized to claim that a book was written for me. But, by gosh, this book was written for and about people like me. I can’t really say what sort of demographic Mr. Lutz had in mind when he wrote this book, but I will just assume for now it is the very same sort of folk who like to engage in the activity the title suggests. Although, Mr. Lutz does apparently live in my Los Angeles neighborhood, so maybe I will just pop by his dwelling some day and ask.
Regardless, Doing Nothing was quickly added to my list of ‘books I must have’ and, since I have no patience whatsoever, the book was just as quickly re-categorized into ‘books I own.’ I read the first chapter as soon as I got home, which is a sizable number of pages and quite an accomplishment for someone who considers himself a slacker. I was struck by Lutz’s early thesis (or seemingly so, I’m not really sure if that term applies here) that sometimes people who are traditionally considered as enjoying leisure pursue said leisure or activities considered leisurely in an almost workmanlike manner, so that it thusly becomes work. Lutz uses several examples of writers, artists, poets and the like who espouse the slacker lifestyle, but hardly adhere to it as they churn out several pieces of work at a sometimes staggering rate.
Lutz also pays heed to the flip-side of the coin by exploring the fact that some classic examples of hard-workers worked only slightly as hard as they claim. Benjamin Franklin is the earliest, most accessible and most symbolic example. Though Franklin often meditates on the merits of hard work, there is ample evidence to indicate that he often led his life to the contrary.
Now I’m not criticizing Ben Franklin for being a closet slacker, but it’s interesting what this book has to say about the opposing views of what is and is not considered ‘hard work’ and how those who often tout the merits of hard work fail to live up to even their own standards. This is all to say nothing about the differing attitudes about what is and isn’t “activity” in general and the omnipresent qualitative disparity regarding between the generations, which is told through his son’s reluctance to leave the couch in an effort to find a job.
I grew up in a hard-working household. My dad works harder than anybody I’ve ever known and (gasp) he actually enjoys it. We’re talking actual physical labor here. Not sitting in front of a computer pretending to make television (good or otherwise) like his son does. My work experience growing up was mixed. I learned the value of hard work as defined by my dad, which, consequently gave me motivation to never have to do that stuff again, which, although maybe not what my dad wanted me to learn, was nonetheless a valuable lesson. After all, a person takes from each experience what he will, regardless of the original intention. Basically, my credo became work hard at not having to work hard and this translated to going to college, getting a degree in a field I like, graduating, and getting a job doing that thing which I like; all so I never have to do that which I hate, which may or may not include manual labor, or, ‘working hard,’ by my dad’s definition. The weird thing is, even to this day, whenever I should venture to have the discussion of my work history with my dad, he still seems to argue alternately that I have and have never had to work hard in my life, depending on the context. He tends to be contrarian in this regard. For example, if I am arguing that I’ve never worked hard, he will list all of the tough jobs I’ve had. But if I’m saying I know what it is to work hard, he will argue that though I have had tough jobs, they were never “that” tough and if they were, I didn’t work very hard at them and, in fact, spent most of the workday complaining about how hard the work was.
I believe, my dad’s aim was to teach me the value of hard work. The side effect – my realization that hard work sucked -- was unintended. One thing rings true: my dad worked hard to provide. It is after all the most important lesson: learning how to provide, whether it’s for self or for others. As for things I ‘wanted’ I have had to work for most of those things since I was about 14. But the irony is, that my parents have usually ended up footing the bill for much of said ‘wanted things’ in the end. But I think, for them, it’s just the satisfaction of knowing that if it was really and truly necessary, I could, at some point, pay for all of it myself. Or at least I have the capacity to do so.
Doing Nothing also first introduced to me to the (apparently archaic) concept of otium, which, by Lutz’s definition is using leisure as an opportunity to further pursue the arts, philosophy and overall betterment of the self. I say that otium is apparently archaic because a Google search of the term curiously turns up next to nothing. So clearly the term is not one in on the tips of many tongues these days.
Within otium, though, is how I justify what I call my own personal “constant pursuit of leisure.” True, I often say that I like to do as little as possible. But it doesn’t mean that I’m literally lying in bed all day staring at the ceiling (though I do that from time to time). I spend most of my time doing nothing, not in front of the television, but reading or writing or playing music…or playing video games. Okay, so a guy’s got to have some vices. But it is in this context that doing nothing is actually doing something. That is, when the pursuit of leisure is actually the antithesis of doing actual work, but not so of being productive, in a sense.
Productivity is a tricky word. Is productivity actually having a physical end-product that is corporeally tangible? Or can it also be a work-in-progress abstract notion of building towards an admittedly vague, but no less real goal of some sort? In my case, I pursue doing nothing in an effort to broaden my mind, to expand knowledge on subjects where little or no knowledge previously existed or, in other words, to be a jack of all intellectual trades and a master of none. I can’t say that there is an ultimate goal, because if there is an ultimate goal, then there is also reason to eventually stop my pursuit of otium, which I don’t see happening anytime soon.
What I find peculiar is that when people phone me and ask what I’m doing, most of the time I answer “hangin’ out”or “chillin’ or “lampin’,” all of which are interchangeable with “doing nothing.” However, chances are I am probably doing something -- the aforementioned leisurely activities of otium -- even if it borders on nothing. Most of the time I tell people this because I don’t want to send the impression that I am too busy to talk or to make immediate plans, but I also don’t want to give the impression that I don’t know how to enjoy myself, because I do. And how!
The pursuit of otium may not be appealing to all. Some people may not consider the leisure of art or the art of leisure all that rewarding. Many are not happy unless they are actually moving and exerting some sort of physical effort. But, is this movement any less a pursuit of leisure than non-movement?
It is a mistake to confuse leisure with inactivity or inertia. It is also a mistake to become too leisurely, lest we lose all motivation whatsoever. I admittedly fall victim to waxing and waning levels of motivation. But that is what is called laziness, which, again, should not be confused with leisure or ‘doing nothing.’ After all, doing nothing is usually doing something, even though the “something may be of little consequence to others, even ourselves, it is still something, nonetheless.