January 10, 2014 7:03 pm

The Shrink & The Sage: Is it OK to do nothing?

‘In our achievement-orientated culture there is a danger of construing as “nothing” any activity without a clear end-product’

The Shrink

'Doing nothing' illustration©Laura Carlin

On asking a new acquaintance the inexorable question “What do you do?”, it may be shocking to hear that the answer is “nothing”. Our impression of that person is liable to register a dip, our thoughts conjuring up visions of laziness – perhaps they rise at lunchtime or lounge on the sofa all day.

In a society in which people are so defined by what they do for a living, it may be awkward for someone without an obvious occupation to reveal this information about themselves. “I do nothing” does not really strike us as a socially acceptable answer. For a person in that position it may be difficult not to perceive the situation as something that requires remedy, as if it may be a dangerous prelude to depression.

Yet most of us are prone to doing too much, and we know it. In some situations – if we are exhausted after a period of hard work or stress, for instance – it may feel appropriate to just flop for a while and reconnect with ourselves. So we may feel curiosity, even envy, about someone so bold as to embrace nothingness.

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The Shrink & The Sage

But a lot depends on what we mean by “nothing”. In our achievement-orientated culture there is a danger of construing this as any activity without a clear end-product. In fact, there are different ways of doing nothing, some positive and some negative. There is a passive watching-TV-all-day kind of doing nothing, which is indeed often a sign of malaise. But there is also a “doing nothing” that includes reading, walking, reflecting, attending to the small things in life. An active doing nothing, if you know what I mean.

I’m not advocating doing nothing as a general policy in life. But it’s important not to confuse all unproductive activity with wasteful idleness. Allowing and cherishing a “doing nothing” of the active variety could enrich life as much as a passive doing nothing is likely to impoverish it.

The Sage

A lazy hippy who dropped out decades ago and hasn’t turned on or tuned in makes for an unlikely movie hero and an even more improbable guru. Yet Jeffrey Lebowski – or “The Dude”, as he prefers to be called – is the loveable heart of the film The Big Lebowski and the philosophical inspiration for the real-life Church of the Latter Day Dude.

The Dude practises a kind of hedonic serenity. While others do, “The Dude abides”. Like a Buddhist monk, The Dude does not strive or grasp and has no ambitions for worldly success. But unlike an ascetic, he embraces worldly pleasures such as sex and iced White Russians when they come his way.

The virtue of this path is highlighted in the film by contrasting it with a belligerent alternative. In its opening sequence, we see President George H W Bush saying of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: “This aggression will not stand.” When a group of strangers break into The Dude’s house and urinate on his rug, he also initially says: “This will not stand”, encouraged by his friend Walter who wants to “draw a line in the sand” to resist “unchecked aggression”. By the end of the film, we see the bloody, lethal consequences of such defiance. Although there is something principled in standing up to bullies, it often ends up compounding the problem.

I’m not sure many of us would really like to live like The Dude and the real world is more complicated than the often surreal universe of The Big Lebowski. But we can learn something from him even if we don’t become card-carrying dudeists. It’s that many battles are not worth fighting, even though our cause is just and our enemies in the wrong. The world is unfair and, if we cannot accept that fact, we will often end up further disturbing the peace of ourselves and others. We should not let people get away with everything, of course. But against the perennial temptation to believe something must be done, doing nothing is often the more courageous and fruitful path.

The Shrink & the Sage live together in southwest England.

To suggest a question, email shrinkandsage@shrinkandsage.com

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