Hey, What’s Wrong With Idleness?

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“What kind of man will feel depressed at being idle? There is nothing finer than to be alone with nothing to distract you,” said Kenko, a Japanese monk, in the 14th century. Well, I am not sure about you, curios reader, but I am one of those people depressed by the fear of idleness. When I find myself “not in action or at work”, the common definition of idleness, I am bothered by the vague feeling that my time is running out and that I could be spending it in a more productive way. So I usually end up doing something, anything, just so I won’t be idle anymore. But is idleness really bad?

“Scurrying and bustling, heedless and forgetful – such are all people.” – Kenko

Idleness has in general a rather bad reputation. I’m not going even to repeat that oft repeated quote about the devil and idle hands, which you know only too well. Idleness makes me uneasy, as I think it makes many people these days, in our competitive world full of deadlines, commitments, and the relentless urge to improve ourselves, to say nothing of technology and its beguiling ways.

It would not be an overstatement to say that modern society equates idleness with a negative state, or at least something less useful and less good than an active state, than doing something. Being myself a member of society, it is not easy for me to detach myself from that notion. I do enjoy being idle from time to time, of course, but then habit energies and a subtle inner voice, perhaps the voice of conscience, spurs me on to get up and act in some way.

I don’t know how you regard idleness, whether you embrace it or dismiss it out of hand, but let me ask you this – is idleness really that bad? Is sitting on a chair and contemplating the burning autumn twilight or lying in bed, with your hands behind your back and letting your thoughts come and go as they please less good than doing something?

It seems to me trouble befalls us when we are active, when we do or try to do things, when we go out through that front door and melt in the simmering stew that is the world. Wouldn’t many of social, economic, and personal problems be prevented, and some perhaps even solved, if most of us consciously engaged in careful idleness. Wouldn’t racism and fanaticism be less of a problem? Wouldn’t there be fewer car accidents? Fewer quarrels, fewer fights, fewer gunshots? Fewer wars even?

“…you can achieve what could be termed temporary happiness at least by removing yourself from outside influences, taking no part in the affairs of the world calming yourself and stilling the mind.” — Kenko

And I think there is another advantage to idleness. When I fill up my idle time with activities, I cannot help but suffer from the vague but bothering sensation that time slips away, that it flows too quickly. Even though I may have achieved things that day, Lady Time nevertheless seems to pull a trick on me, to rob be of my precious hours. Idleness, however, seems to slow down time. If I am idle, I am not distracted by external stimuli, nor can I lose myself – and time – in an activity.

In our day and age, when we are surrounded by so many things that scream for our attention, being idle isn’t easy. Seems to me, though, as Kenko said, that a bit of idleness every day won’t hurt anyone. Screenless, unhurried, peaceful idleness, I mean, the kind that relaxes us and fills us with a quiet sense of anticipation for enjoyable activities to come, an idleness that is like a wakeful sleep, dreamless yet mindfully and irresistibly still, like the familiar painting in the window…

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Do you think we can indulge in idleness, at least from time to time, or should we relentlessly overcome our idleness and do things?

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21 thoughts on “Hey, What’s Wrong With Idleness?

  1. I feel better when things are in order. Right now I have a few weeks off-time and my days will be used to complete projects that have been waiting to be finished. This weekend, my son, grandson and I have been working on a freestanding bar that will be between my living room and dining room.

    Except for sleep I am rarely idle. Even when resting I read or write, play online games or watch movies. There is always something to clean, repair, organize, family or friends to visit, etc. I do love sitting quietly on a mountain top and staring at the beauty of nature; if this is the kind of idleness you speak of, we all need those moments.

    1. Sitting quietly on a mountain top and staring at the beauty of nature wouldn’t hurt anyone, would it? Most of us, though, I think we can make do with a comfortable chair or bed and a well-lit window. Idleness requires so little preparation.

      1. Good morning Vincent! I always enjoy your posts and this one is as the rest-beautifully written and thought provoking.

        To me, how time is spent should be positive and constructive, whether idle or otherwise. I wrote The Good Samaritan after reading something that was deeply moving and Up to the Mountains, Down on the Farm was posted after a trip to my son’s home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Just looking at the mountains and nature in these photos is calming.

        If I had a window or a porch that displayed the beauty of nature, I would gladly sit silently. There is a time to sit and reflect, be idle.

        “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” ―John Lubbock, The Use Of Life

        “Were it not for the leaping and twinkling of the soul, man would rot away in his greatest passion, idleness.” ― C.G. Jung

        I have to get going, so much to be done with Thanksgiving in a few days. I am looking forward to this special day with my family.

  2. In a capitalist society, idleness is death. In a capitalist society, everyone is running somewhere hurrying to get their hands on something (the jackpot?). Idleness would not only contrast, but interrupt the rhythm and flow of an ecstatic search for…nothing, at the end of the day. If we’re kept busy on a daily basis, we are being prevented from pondering on the great themes of life, on the state of the world, on philosophical questions, on the significance of being idle… Because if we were pondering on these issues, we would stop the vicious circle of waking up-working-going to bed, that is of being lost in meaninglessness.

    1. Quite so! Would be interesting to measure nationwide levels of idleness in non-capitalist societies and compare them with those in capitalist societies and see how we stand. And another interesting comparison would be present day global idleness levels with global idleness levels in the past centuries. Oh, ancient Greeks of Athens! Oh decadent Romans! Oh Romantics, Transcendentalists, and Hippies! Spring back to life and teach us idleness!

    2. In a capitalist society, idelness is suffering.
      And society loves it. Hence, peeping tom and his condesending girlfriend.

  3. This was an excellent read! I love idleness at the end of a long, tiring week. I love a weekend with late lie ins and pyjama days, but for me they have to come at a price otherwise they become dank, stagnant days which are shameful and depressing.

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