To idle: to spend time doing nothing – or so my dictionary tells me. In a word-prompt association game, a psychologist might anticipate responses such as unproductive, indolent, frivolous, useless, fruitless, pointless, empty, futile, trivial, hollow, lazy, and otiose – to name a dozen that idly come to mind. I particularly like otiose: having no practical purpose, result or merit.
From an early age we are conditioned to believe that being idle is bad for us and should be avoided at all costs. Tracing where this concept developed is complex, but some influences are clear.
One is the Industrial Revolution, which brought with it not just unprecedented economic growth but also a significant increase in per capita income. One of its side effects was to push workers into regular structured employment – jobs, as we might now describe them. (Another, incidentally, was that many women lost their economic importance doing gainful piece work in the home, and instead “were confined to idle domestic existence”, according to Alice Clark).
The financial rewards of this new era proved too attractive to the vast majority of workers, who in the main didn’t question what they might be giving up in their rush for gold. Nor did they stop to consider that they might be also signing up for a system that would produce a cocktail of long hours, bullying, harassment, intrigue, and mental and physical exhaustion to varying degrees. And those that didn’t were generally regarded as anti-social idlers.
This line of thinking was reinforced by what Max Weber referred to as “the spirit of Capitalism” and which he noted was “inherent in the Protestant work ethic”. Furthermore, our religious instructors after all liked to claim our real purpose in this (all too obviously transitory) life was to earn our place in what they held out to be our next one. That could be done, inter alia, by “the sweat of our brow”, with our Chief Celestial Gate Keeper noting in his score card any of our misdemeanours such as idling – all to be used in evidence against us when the Judgment Day trial got under way. (It seems to me like a rather poor marketing presentation of a loving and forgiving God, but that’s a subject for another day).
But wait a minute. Is there not a possibility that someone has hijacked our thinking in all of this? Just how does this received wisdom square with the notion of free will and being personally responsible for our actions? Just who came up with the notion of a devil in the first place, never mind him (or her? – aha!) making work for idle hands? And earning our bread by the sweat of our brow? And is there not a fundamental inconsistency here with the exhortation: consider the lilies of the field who neither toil nor sow?
So why don’t we question this a bit more? Is it because we still believe it when our ‘betters’ tell us it is for our own good? Have we been conditioned to feel GUILTY about making available to ourselves some free time to spend dreaming, loving, imagining? Time communicating with our souls that has an intensity and richness of its own? Do we agree with the notion that the so-called idlers are committing some sort of crime when they steal back some time for themselves that was stolen from them in the first place by their betters?
So the next time you see the idler, the flaneur, someone strolling, sauntering, loafing, lounging, lazing, watching (“You can observes a lot by just watching”: Yogi Berra), sitting on the bank of a river, with or without a fishing rod, perhaps you should hesitate before you dismiss their Huck Finn lifestyle as idleness. Consider the following quote by the sociologist Georg Simmel: “The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, or external culture, and of the technique of life.”
This suggests that to survive in any meaningful way, it is incumbent on us to fight to understand and protect our inner selves, our soul, from all comers. I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s line: I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul.
Could it be then that these idlers who we have been conditioned to look down on are doing something that is very positive for their soul, their mental health. Think of the calmness of the lives led by the folk in contemplative communities, regardless of creed or philosophical persuasion. They develop resilience and don’t obsess about everyday problems.
But it takes courage to opt out. Deciding not to go with the flow but instead to take personal responsibility risks unpopularity. A decision to fight off the oppression of social conventions and to engage in the apparent self-indulgence of idling is seen as not playing the game. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it: “To be idle requires a strong sense of personal identity.”
So, the real point is perhaps that while we all need to honour the various social and work commitments we have made to family, friends and society, we also need to seize some time for ourselves to idle, to explore, and to express our inner selves.
Gerry Moloney ©