The Sublime Gift of Idleness by Sharon O’Donnell
Last week, my 88-year-old mother, one of my sisters, and I went to the North Carolina coast for a couple of nights and days of relaxation and seafood. And the agenda was just that: I wanted to sit on the beach in a low-down beach chair with 50 SPF sunscreen and a cap to shade my face (not lie in the sun as I might have wanted to do 15 years ago) and just SIT THERE. There would be none of my sons or my sister’s sons to have to worry about this vacation (even in when they are in their teens and twenties, we don’t like to see them go too far out in the ocean — still remember last year when one of her boys took my 12-year-old in a kayak out to the deep part of the ocean to see dolphins — whew!). I took a book with me, Killing Kennedy, the same one I started reading on vacation in December, then misplaced shortly afterwards and didn’t want to buy again because it’d been a gift from my oldest son — then finally bought a new one last month — only to find the original one a week later. Yeah, that’s the way my attempts at reading a book usually go. I seem to only read on vacations.
But several hours passed on the beach before I even took out the book to read. The day was warm but not at all humid — a rarity in North Carolina and one of the reasons we decided to get away when we did: no muggy weather for one day. We were under a beach umbrella, and the day was perfect. All three of us sat there for a few hours, talking and relaxing. I caught myself feeling guilty a few times for just sitting and not ‘doing’, but then I let the guilt pass. I began to not even consciously think; occasionally, a structured thought did cross my mind, but then it was immediately gone. I just sat and observed the people and nature around me while the things on my mind and the constant schedule in my head disappeared: the details of my middle son’s college move-in day, my 13-year-old’s upcoming birthday sleepover or his upcoming integer math test, my oldest son’s applications to grad schools, my husband’s business trip dates, my writing schedule, my volunteer work, doctors’ appointments, etc. . . . I honestly can’t say what I actually thought about, if anything; it just felt good to just ‘be’. I’m sure my sons and husband would have been bored silly, but my mom and my sister enjoyed the idle relaxation as much as I did. I really couldn’t put my finger on it, couldn’t explain it to myself or to others satisfactorily. Whatever it was, it was rejuvenating.
Then I saw a friend’s Facebook post in which she partially quoted a recent New York Times essay, and this explanation captured my feelings perfectly:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
by Tim Kreider
“The ‘Busy’ Trap”, New York Times
Ahhhhhh. This also explains why I hate how my sons and husband are all so addicted to their cell phones; while waiting for appointments or movies or games to begin, they are constantly scrolling down the screen on their cell phones, seeing postings from friends, seeing sports scores, maybe even some news headlines. Or perhaps listening to music. I would be exhausted with all that input of information or noise. Continual input. I worry that their brains and their souls are not idle enough to be rejuvenated. And after my time at the beach, I’m even more convinced that idleness is something we shouldn’t live without.