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Attitudes Towards Idleness : a cross cultural reflection.

In a letter written in 1844, French author Gustave Flaubert asked a friend,

“Do you know weariness? Not that common vulgar boredom which comes from idleness or ill health, but that modern weariness which gnaws a man’s entrails, and turns an intelligent being into a walking shadow, a thinking apparition.”

Flaubert’s definition marks a turning point as to how we perceive boredom today. Previously, boredom was considered a luxury for the elite. People of high social status and a certain amount of financial security had the privilege of feeling bored. I suppose back then in certain circles aristocrats engaged in “boredom bragging”.

In many countries today or at least on most social media, this has become unthinkable. Friends in our professional networks would never confess to not knowing what to do with their time. To the contrary, they may very well engage in the 21st century phenomenon called “busy bragging”. In an amusing video, British journalist and commentator Olivier Burkemann describes the kind of “busy” which we would all like to portray – a high social status or upwardly mobile “busy” to impress others.

Recently, a number of studies suggest that people today not only enjoy busyness but feel disorientated or acutely uncomfortable with being idle. In most cultures, idleness is a close neighbor to boredom – the investigation of which has not been of interest (ha ha!) to researchers until the last 50 years. A Chinese American researcher, Christopher K. Hsee conducted a study on idleness at the University of Chicago and one of the conclusions that came out of it was, “people who are busy tend to be happier than those who are idle.”

While I don’t dispute the findings of their research, I do feel that the results might well have been different had they conducted their experiment with people from different cultures. Given the “high achievement” culture prevalent in the United States, it is small wonder that participants in the study experienced discomfort or frustration when their “actions or energy could not be directed towards something constructive.” Would the results have been the same had Italians been questioned? The Italian virtue of “Dolce Far Niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing) is in direct contrast to the popular American adage, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

This idea (or should I say ‘ideal’?) of enjoying the sweet and slow passage of time was also promoted by one of my favorite Chinese philosophers, Lin Yutang, who in his classic “The Importance of Living”, explains the difference to Westerners.

“From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise.”

In one passage, he challenges the reader:

“If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.”

Extolling the virtues of being idle may seem puzzling to many Westerners who see the Chinese as very hard-working. This diligence is undoubtedly the influence of Confucianism and the importance it places on self-cultivation. It is noteworthy, for example that in the Analects, the reader is warned against “finding enjoyment in idleness” (论语 XVI.5.)– the Chinese ideogram for lost or dissolute 佚 yì combines man 亻with loss 失.

Of course, Confucius in his time was more concerned with creating a harmonious society, not escaping it. Is it better to withdraw from society or participate in it? Is this the eternal dance between Yin (passive) and the Yang (active)? If we want to transcend the Being versus Doing duality, we need to fast forward about fourteen hundred years from Ancient China to 19th century Europe, where the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) took a more helpful approach – differentiating idleness from boredom.

"Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, as long as one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil, it is rather the true good.”

The son of a Protestant pastor, he grew up with a belief that idleness was inherently harmful. Danes, like most Northern Europeans were predominantly Protestants who, like the majority of the first Americans viewed inactivity with suspicion. Idleness was associated with sloth - one of the seven deadly sins of the Bible. The statesman and inventor, Benjamin Franklin, even wrote “Idleness is the Dead Sea which swallows all virtues.”

Kierkegaard’s musings were published in 1843 in a work called “Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” and found a lot of resonance 100 years later with the existentialists. Much of Europe had been devastated in the Second World War and amid the physical reconstruction of cities there was also a lot of psychological debris. Many called into question beliefs and values which did little to guide them in a time of crisis. The moral compass was broken. Disillusioned by ideologies which crumbled all too quickly, they were confronted the sobering realization that they were strangers to themselves.

I am fully aware that as I write this, millions of us are struggling with social, economic and psychological disruption of the Corona Virus lockdown. In no way do I mean to minimize the devastating effects of an imposed isolation on our well-being nor the loss we have had and still have to deal with. We have our own reconstruction to do. How do we begin? My personal view is that we all use the nouns “boredom” and “stress” too randomly – as band-aids to something else. While it takes courage to quiet the mind, the great T'ang dynasty poet Han-shan (寒山) has inspired many by describing the beauty of both the outer and inner landscape:

A thousand clouds, ten thousand streams,

Here I live, an idle man,

Free of heat and dust, my mind.

Sweet to know there’s nothing I need,

Silent as the autumn river’s flood.

The sweetness of this inner stillness touches the soul - what the Japanese would call, kokoro こころ, a single word which encompasses, body, mind, emotions, and the heart. The yearning for this space may well explain their comfort (and our Western lack of comfort) with silence. It is in this state of calm that most poetry is written - for how else can the soul speak and be spoken to?

However, the practice of sitting quietly with the body, does NOT mean that one sits and stays with a mind free from random chatter. Not even the most experienced meditator would claim easy or uninterrupted access to such serenity. Nevertheless, these moments of silence, however brief, do bring their benefits. They give the practitioner what the French would say aptly call their "raison d'être".

Teaching oneself to embrace the idleness and be present to whatever comes to surface is what really matters. Building resilience in times of uncertainty may just come down to the art of learning to sit through any temporary discomfort and witness the birth of something deeper, something wiser from within. More than ever, we need to move forward mindfully, with compassion, in search of wisdom -- wisdom to heal ourselves and heal this troubled world we now find ourselves in.

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