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Virtue: Idleness

Mark Slouka has written an interesting article called Quitting The Paint Factory: On The Virtues of Idleness. I became aware of this article through Chris Corrigan.

I distrust the perpetually busy; always have. The frenetic ones spinning in tight little circles like poisoned rats. The slower ones, grinding away their fourscore and ten in righteousness and pain. They are the soul-eaters.

From this wonderful opening we are invited into a variety of creative metaphors and a compelling look at the need for more reflection in life...

A common association with the idea of being busy is doing things quickly and perhaps efficiently. Mark [in the quote above] invites us to consider the pace busyness, or more simply, being busy does not necessarily mean that we are doing things at a fast pace. Busyness can also be slow and steady.

Look about: The business of busi­ness is everywhere and inescapable; the song of the buyers and the sellers never stops; the term "workaholic" has been folded up and put away. We have no time for our friends or our families, no time to think or to make a meal. We're moving product, while the soul drowns like a cat in a well.

It seems to me that one of the problems with busyness as Mark describes it is distraction. In other words, we can become so absorbed in a certain range of activities that we forget other dimensions of life. The article clearly positions our obsession with materialism and commerce. The problem of busyness in this sense is that life and busi-ness become too closely aligned as a lifestyle priority. I am reminded of Aldous Huxley's warning, "Attention. Here and Now!" in Island.

Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, req­uisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idle­ness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil.

I know a number of people who are also so busy it is often difficult to relate to them other than in hyperbits. There are a few others I know that can barely make it through a movie and the idea of sitting down in solitude and reading a book is alien and even uncomfortable. There seems to be a constant nervousness in them, one that drives them to keep "active" yet the activities they engage in seem to be more a means to keep busy as an end unto itself. At the same time, I sense it is not something they consciously set out to do, or even desire.

The mind, however, particularly the mind of a citizen in a de­mocratic society, is not a boat. Ballast is not what it needs, and steadiness, alas, can be a synonym for stupidity, as our current administration has so am­ply demonstrated. No, what the democratic mind requires, above all, is time; time to consider its options.

This brought to mind the idea of routine prey from Castaneda's Journey To Ixtlan: "Your cleverness makes you more silly than I thought." We could easily replace the word cleverness with busyness.

At times you can almost see it, this flypaper we're attached to, this mechanism we labor in, this delusion we inhabit. A thing of such magnitude can be hard to make out, of course, but you can rough out its shape and mark its progress, like Lon Chaney's Invisible Man, by its effects: by the things it renders quaint or obsolete, by the trail of discarded notions it leaves be­hind. What we're leaving behind today, at record pace, is what­ever belief we might once have had in the value of unstructured time: in the privilege of contemplating our lives before they are gone, in the importance of uninterrupted conversation, in the beauty of play. In the thing in itself – unmediated, leading nowhere. In the present moment.

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