Monday, December 30, 2013

Doing Nothing

While it would be a sizeable stretch to label me a man of action, if one ignores the James Bond theme I easily qualify as someone who prefers activity to serenity.  Nonetheless there are times when sitting still and doing nothing can be really quite pleasant.  For example, after a long and exhausting bike ride I especially enjoy reclining in the sun on a chaise longue; or, if the weather is cooler, taking a nap.  Reading a book almost anytime is always profitable (though my preference is either at the end of the day in a comfortable chair with a martini or on a beach where I may be moderately distracted by the Ocean and sea grasses).  A steam bath or sauna, particularly if punctuated by a revitalizing swim, is equally agreeable. I won’t object to watching a stimulating movie or attending a theatrical performance.  I have even been persuaded without regret to take a guided tour when visiting a new place.

Apart from those limited circumstances I am hard pressed to imagine any other time when doing nothing recommends itself to me.  The act of thinking – and nothing else – is unquestionably the reserve of the philosopher but for my part it must be conjoined with writing; I need to see something tangible for my effort, part of that niggling productivity feature I find so absorbing.

For my entire life I have either had to go to school or go to work.  Not a terribly glamorous summary of one’s life, but there it is.  That drudge alone (without even considering the collateral undertakings of team sports, school plays, piano lessons, fraternities, committees, boards, foundations or public service groups) has successfully ensured that my opportunity to do nothing was narrow.  Industry was the rule.  I regularly gauged my progress in life by a restatement of what I had done.  To be clear, it wasn’t the mere act of doing which satisfied me but rather the fulfillment of it to the best of my ability.  Yet the need to be busy was there.  Without it there was a fear strangely akin to the vision of falling off a cliff.

As the prospect of having to do nothing begins to loom in the distance there are questions which ascend.  At the very least I am suddenly fretful whether I shall be able to manufacture enough to fill my time.  This is a very real consideration for someone whose life has been crammed from morning ‘till night with an agenda.  The question wasn’t “What shall I do?” but rather “When shall I do it?”  I never moved without consulting my diary.  My life was entwined with events from without, now I must look within.

The initiation to this forbidding evolution is the relatively painless medium of an annual vacation.  Take Hilton Head Island for example.  This is where I am at the moment and I am quite content to indulge myself in the pleasure of doing nothing for the two weeks that we are here.  Frankly it is a task which is virtually instinctive as I tolerate myself to wind down and recharge after the constraint of a year’s labour.  In that respect it is rather like lying in the sun after a long bike ride, enforced recuperation.  Even if the pampering begins to wear thin there is the diverting prospect of having to return to the grind and the routine in fairly short order. On the other hand where the hours of inactivity become weeks and months the outlook is not so plain.

The real fear of course isn’t that there will be nothing to do.  There is after all television.  No, what paralyzes me is the dread that I will do nothing productive.  Even when I consider the need to cut the grass, wash the car and pay my bills, that hardly fills even one day much less defines an accomplishment of any degree.  And as riveting as my so-called hobbies are, they risk the plight of becoming obsessions for their sake only and not as fruitful of any definable achievement.  My 38-year career as a practicing lawyer has been the business of unraveling problems, constructing schema and choreographing transactions.  Granted a good deal of it was nothing but plodding work but invariably it moved a matter from one point to another with the benefit of reaching a goal.  It is not likely that such Pavlovian problem solving will persist in retirement.

I suspect that upon retirement there is the gamble that one becomes the target of local institutions which seek one’s collegiality ostensibly for the advantage of “your years of experience”.  This rings about as true as the same stalking directed at young professionals who have newly arrived in the community.  In both instances the object is merely to plug a hole on a volunteer board or committee.  Certainly there are choices which merit accession but the decision must be made carefully and upon reflection.  And more importantly the verdict must satisfy a need in one’s self otherwise it is simply a case of lots going on and nothing happening.

In spite of the apparent consternation surrounding this progression, it is unarguable that for many reasons there is no turning back.  Tackling the issue is what’s required. It is new territory and will likely unfold many unforeseen advantages.  There is as well something natural about the declension.  Thanks to tricycles there is no fear of my physical disintegration no matter what my age.  I suspect that in time I shall join the ranks of old fogey volunteers.  There may even be opportunities to develop new hobbies.  The restrictions which previously circumscribed my life and activities are changing.  Like many others I have contemplated getting a new part-time job, though I know it is a task easier said than done.  Whatever transpires it is only fair to give it some time.  The manic enthusiasm to make it all happen in an instant just isn’t going to do.  I guess that’s part of the new life.  Even though many others have waded into these dark waters and survived I am still convinced that, just as in my past, I must make my own way in the future.  Perhaps that is the new agenda.

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