Saturday, March 21, 2015

An Apology For Idlers

I have many books from the Penguin "Great Ideas" series, but this one, by Robert Louis Stevenson, with its clever cover, is the first I've read all the way through. This volume is really a collection of Stevenson's essays using the old trick of using the best essay, with the most intriguing title, as the title for the whole volume. Other, longer, duller essays are included as well, about topics as preparing for life as a painter, love, old age, and some travelogue pieces about Stevenson's life in California. The wisest statement from these last regarded the nature of land ownership in California: "...the Americans had been greedy like designing men, and the Mexicans greedy like children..." I think there is rather a lot in that bold statement.

But the main essay is the most interesting, I think, even though it is quite short. In it, he makes many arguments in favor of idleness. It is some of our most pleasurable time, and most memorable time. Time spent in self-reflection is generally more educational than time spent in lecture. Further, he rails against busyness as overrated, and unnecessary.
And what, in God's name, is all this pother about? For what cause do they embitter their own adn other people's lives? That a man should publish three or thirty articles a year, that he should finish or not finish his great allegorical picture, are questions of little interest to the world. The ranks of life are full; and although a thousand fall, there are always some to go into the breach. When they told Joan of Arc she should be at home minding women's work, she answered there were plenty to spin and wash. And so, even with your own rare gifts! When nature is 'so careless of the single life', why should we coddle ourselves into the fancy that our own is of exceptional importance? Suppose Shakespeare had been knocked on the head some dark night in Sir Thomas Lucy's preserves, the world would have wagged on better or worse, the pitcher gone to the well, the scythe to the corn, and the student to his book; and no one been any wiser of the loss... This is a sobering reflection for the proudest of our earthly vanities.
This is a deep and provocative statement, calling into question what really matters. Conventional wisdom is that grinding away at "important work" means either safeguarding yourself and family, or doing work that helps the world, now and in the future. This question resonates with me quite a bit, because I am constantly up against this dilemma. Am I wiser to relax and take pleasure now, or fuss and fret about my work so that I'm better off in future? I constantly run into situations where I am overwhelmed with responsibility, and wonder if I am making a mistake. At the same time, though, my hard work in the past (writing my book, preparing lectures, growing my studio) has done a great deal to secure my current situation. But on the other hand, in the last thirty years, I have not stopped working for more than a week at a time, and I have a lengthy wish list of things I would eagerly spend time on (books, games, solo projects, performances, etc.) if I somehow had time. I hear people tell me tales of how they retired, but then quickly became bored, having nothing to do... that boggles my imagination... I always have more and more things to do. I guess the central question in my life is one of obligation... walking away from my teaching or my studio would leave many people disappointed, not to mention how much it would scare my family. One day, not too far off, I hope to find a way to take a significant kind of sabbatical, where I do nothing but pursue my interests, perhaps do some writing, coding, crafting, or performing, but at my leisure, with no set deadlines. But how can that happen?

Since it's late, I may as well bring this up. More and more, I am becoming uncertain about the nature of time. I am not at all clear that it runs in a single direction, or that it is linear, or that it only happens once. I have a suspicion something far more complex is going on, that we have trouble seeing, due to the limited nature of our consciousness. It seems, more and more to me, that time is all of a piece, that we receive messages from the future all the time. As I've mentioned before, I often run into things that seem to have special significance, as if they are going to be important. I've learned to pay attention to these moments. Somehow, they seem to lead me to positive, successful situations, even though sometimes they can take a long time. And then, later, the magic seems to go out of them entirely, as if somehow, I know they are no longer useful. My Hohner Trumpet Call Harmonica was like that. As is the Atari 2600 game, "Room of Doom." I saw it in a magazine in 1984, and it seemed terribly important. It has seemed important all that time. I finally ordered it recently, and it sits here on my desk, ominously. I know that I will play it, when the time seems right, and somehow, something will come from that. It always sounds crazy to talk this way -- but I'm not rambling. The nature of time is central to Stevenson's thesis. Does our place in the future matter more than hedonism? Does the universe have a goal? If it does, is it in a hurry to carry it out? Does it matter if I help it reach that goal? I know I often feel like it does have a goal, and when I work hard, and fill my life with busyness, it is in a belief that I am helping it achieve that goal, as arrogant and egotistic as it sounds. I cannot hold, I think, with Stevenson's proclamation that Shakespeare didn't make a difference to the world -- he has done a great deal to shape the doings of humanity, and one suspects that somehow, he knew this... there is a weight in his work, a weight of responsibility, that suggests, no, implies, no SCREAMS that he knew about the tremendous responsibility that was upon him, that he was doing work that no other could do, work that would shape the world in intricate ways for thousands, if not millions of years. This point of view seems to argue against idleness. But does it? For extreme industry can lead one away from what is most important. If our most valuable tasks are to serve the universe, we will be unable to carry those out without listening to the universe, and we can only do this kind of listening in moments of idleness. All of this makes me realize that what I seek more than anything else is not a life of no industry, or no idleness, but rather a life of intense industry, and intense idleness, but free from obligation. For obligation to others promotes industry, and destroys idleness, and obligation to others makes one focus on doing the work that others need most, not the work that the universe needs most. But can I be brave enough to cast aside these obligations so that I might do the work the universe needs? This is exactly what Jesus talks about on the sermon on the mount, of course. Following your faith takes a lot of idleness, a lot of industry, and a lot of bravery.

1 comment:

  1. Well said! It is interesting to think how many of Shakespeare's contemporaries would have considered his work idleness, when there was so much washing and spinning to get done. Why should the popular notions of 'work' and 'idleness' distract us from what we believe we are called to do? I'm thankful you have followed your passion and given so much of yourself and experience for others to benefit from. You could have just sat and reflected on Stevenson's essays, but you shared your thoughts with us!