Essay: In Praise of Idleness

December 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I was amused and shocked a few years ago when the first kids I know asked for palm pilots for Christmas. Cell phones I could see — we are a yakking culture — but palm pilots for 11-year-olds? Were their technomanias so already intense, not to mention their schedules, that they wanted the latest, greatest gadget for life management? Given their schedules, it’s no wonder. Herded here and there, from soccer match to math tutor, weighed down, literally, with homework, these kids have barely a minute to draw breath.

Now comes a pioneering study spearheaded by Northwestern University showing that a driven lifestyle can predispose kids for hypertension and heart troubles down the road. Do we need studies to prove these things? I guess we do. But I’m concerned with heart troubles of another kind. A frantic heart simply cannot take its own measure, hear its own voice, sing its own song. What will happen to these kids with no down time, no daydreaming time? How will they figure out who they are and what they believe in and what will make them happy, truly, deep-down happy, not in a crowd, a clique, or a claque, but solo, alone, at rest? That’s when you know.

That’s what idleness is for: Hearing that whisper way inside, the whisper of your own poetry and passions and convictions. Of course, it’s not just kids. All of us seem revved up to the max, running here and there, trying to make a living, shuttling children, attending older parents. Even in our cars, we allow ourselves no respite.

The automobile used to be a grand cocoon for drifting and daydreaming. Our cars are now crammed with all the trendy noisemakers, the CD players and cell phones and maps that talk to us, as if we cannot stand a quiet, idle moment, just like our restaurants, each one louder than the last, literally programmed for noise with their hard surfaces and thumping sound systems and huge, hovering TV sets.

And, of course, leisure time is an oxymoron, everyone at play as teeth-grittingly intent as at work, pushing, pumping, sweating, bungee-jumping, each sport more and more dangerous and extreme, as if we need to keep upping the ante lest there be a moment’s respite, a moment to think, a moment of idleness. It feels as if we are all engaged in some frantic game of self-avoidance.

DR. PHIL: Tell me why you think you do this.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: This is an irony in a narcissistic culture that offers up every kind of psycho babbling guru purporting to be a guide to the self and soul, but they are covers, not the real deal. The real deal, the real rooting about, only happens in idleness. So, too, of course, does any truly creative work. It is the product of the mind left free to roam and cogitate and curl up in the corner. It cannot be done in the din, the crowd, not the truly original thinking of poets or philosophers or composers or artists.

Only in quietude can we think, imagine, dream, the greats and the rest of us, to whatever degree we each are able. That is my wish for the season: That we all idle a bit more, that we listen to the carols sung by our own souls. I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.