Doing nothing

Steve McQueen in

I know it’s a really really boring thing to say but I think our modern lives are too busy. When I was a child I spent lots of time doing nothing.

I remember my dad once getting annoyed with me for doing nothing. He was reading the newspaper and my sister was sitting on the settee doing something. I was sitting in front of the fire, repetitively bouncing a ping pong ball against the gas fire’s wire guard. I would throw the ball against a tile under the fire, watch the ball bounce up and hit the fire-guard and hear the clanging sound and it made. The ball would shoot off at odd angles as it hit the metal wires. I did this for quite a while.

This very soon got on my dad’s nerves (I can’t imagine why) and he said, ‘Haven’t you got anything better to do?’ For a second I was lost for an answer because I wasn’t aware that what I had been doing was not constructive, or even that it needed to be. Anyway, I grinned sheepishly, put the ball out of reach and just sat there for a while.

I suppose some minutes must have gone by before I heard my dad say, “My god, you must be bored.” I was sitting and gently slapping my cheek. I wasn’t aware of what I was doing, it just happened. I would probably have gone on doing it for a long time if my dad hadn’t drawn my attention to it. Even to me it seemed a stupid way to spend my time. Yet I like to think that just as ‘a dance is a walk that is felt’, so a slap is a face that is felt.

All this goes to show that I have some sympathy with people who want to slow their lives down. Yet in trying to do so I think many people merely substitute a busy activity for a less busy one. Instead of mindlessly bouncing a ping pong ball on the hearth tiles or slapping their faces, they meditate.

Now, meditating is a proper activity, like working or polishing your shoes. I know from the outside it doesn’t look like much but what matters is how the person doing it feels. And I believe that most meditators feel they are doing something useful. It feels so constructive to them that if the their spouse were to ask them, “What are you doing?” they wouldn’t say “Nothing”. They would say “I’m meditating, darling. Please go away.” Doing nothing would make them feel guilty for wasting their lives. It is what old people do when they stare vacantly at the carpet on a Tuesday afternoon in some retirement home. But meditating! Now that sounds like a real activity, the kind of activity you might do to unwind after an overly-busy week, an activity that shouldn’t be interrupted.

I think this is a mistake. A better antidote to being busy is to do nothing. You might feel guilty at first but you’ll soon get over that. Meditation on the other hand is a serious activity for serious people and just one more opportunity to take yourself seriously.

Yet doing nothing shouldn’t look like this:


This to me looks like boredom. Being bored is bad but doing nothing and being engrossed is good. The latter is demonstrated by Steve McQueen in the photo at the top of the page. Mindlessly bouncing a baseball against a prison cell wall, hour after hour, can be engrossing.

Anyway, if you don’t have a prison cell in which to bounce your ball I recommend regressing to an almost retarded state and mindlessly throwing a ping pong ball against a gas fire guard. Or slapping your face for an hour or two. Your dad won’t like it, but you will.


One thought on “Doing nothing”

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