The Joy of Doing Nothing


Reading in the shed this morning. It’s a piece in the Paris Review by poet Ross Gay about the delight of loitering even when you are aware that in American culture loitering is a crime.

Gay’s definition of loitering is a broad one that includes everything from dawdling to frittering away to hanging out.  I will admit, I am not always the most patient person, and so the dawdler can make me crazy. A meanderer, especially walking on the streets of downtown Chicago, can get my blood boiling. Don’t they have some place to be? But I have also come to understand that this is only one side of me, only one facet, and that I am quite capable of being the dawdler or the “loiterer” when I am committed to it. And now, here’s Ross Gay telling me I should be making more time to be at least one of them.

It’s hard to do nothing. Aren’t we always doing something? And, as Mr. Gay suggests, doing nothing in the American culture means we are being sinfully unproductive. Getting stuff done is so interwoven into our society that we see the dawdler, the lollygagger, the loiterer—banished by many a NO LOITERING sign—as being “nonconsumptive” and this, he writes, “is a crime in America.”


Yet, philosophers and therapists tell us that sitting quietly, being alone, taking a walk by yourself are good things. The great creatives have all spent time alone, many of them as walkers—Dickens, Thoreau, William Wordsworth—who believed quiet walks doing nothing were an act of poetry. And in our insane world of immediacy, checking out for a time can be necessary to re-balance.

But it ain’t easy. Even Mr. Gay admits this. And, he writes,  there is yet another, even deeper meaning to the act of doing nothing.

Gay writes that “taking our time” or “taking one’s time”—a more acceptable definition of dawdling or loitering—implies that time is not our own. That it belongs to someone else. To society? To cultural norms? But not to us. So much so, that we have to take it back.

Any true creative endeavor involves some level of observation, of studying people, things, nature, emotion, even if we are studying ourselves. And to really see, we have to spend time on it. It may look to the casual observer that we are doing nothing. And in a way, we are. But doing nothing is a key element in the larger process of paying attention, essential for creative work. And so, it is worth it to “take our time.”

I finish Gay’s piece and lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and do…nothing. I try to let my mind simply accept thoughts not create them. Instead of stepping on the gas pedal to send my mind racing, I idle. I am in neutral. And after a few minutes, something comes to me. I remember a time from long ago, an afternoon I have not thought about in many years.

I was a kid. It was summer. My friends and I—three or four of them, if I remember correctly—were on our backs in someone’s backyard staring at the sky, sharing what we saw in the clouds. A dog. A dragon. A truck. Someone’s father, I believe it was, stepped out to the back porch and demanded to know what we were up to. Why were we doing nothing? He said something like, “You kids should be doing something with yourselves.” I remember feeling guilty. Later that day, my friends and I set-up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk. Ten cents a paper cup.

I’m pretty sure that father was smiling. And I’m pretty sure I was a little sad.

Photo by Ilham Rahmansyah on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “The Joy of Doing Nothing

  1. Proverbs instructs us that “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Well, I agree with you and Gay: There is satisfaction to be gained from sitting on our hands from time to time and watching the world — and the devil — going floating by.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s