If I learned one thing growing up in the Chicago suburbs, it’s that lazy people are really, really frowned upon. Being worth something meant you did something. You contributed; to the house, the team, the school, the community. Willingly making your own life harder so that someone else’s could be easier was the altruistic myth that hard work was built on. What it truly does, though, better than anything else and in the most feel-good sense, is separate us away from ourselves. Productivity is such an alluring and adored form of suicide.
Time alone with yourself, undistracted, is rife with unease. Stillness makes you feel bad. Like you’re not doing enough. Wasting time and potential is not the deed of doers.
I am a product of the 1980’s. Of my father, Reaganism, labor disputes, and clawing our way to stay within the middle class. I did not realize the luxury of having brand-name snacks until my cousin made a confession decades later. We earned those Capri Suns with daily chores lists written on paper plates and taped to the kitchen cabinets. It served as our reminder in the place of food that we were expected to earn our keep.
Amidst the industry of blue-collar realism, my imagination managed to keep its heartbeat. Movies and television and stories kept me amazed and raised the bar of possibility. It was the presentation of ideas that made them most compelling. I remember tearing up at the following scene in The Neverending Story. Though the animatronics are almost laughable now, the sincerity made me believe every word:
The Nothing, the wolf explained, was the absence of human hopes and dreams. I couldn’t envision anything worse. To circumvent this fate and also be a productive member of the household/society, I learned to do my best conjuring while I performed monotonous labor. Picking trimmed leaves out of the lava rocks during the summer, before headphones and music were necessary, was just the right job in just the right environment for me to create my own stories and keep me working until the sun went down.
The sooner you finished something, the sooner you could start on the next. The goal was to work hard now so you could you could relax later. What they didn’t tell you is that the relaxing never really came. It was just sleep, a necessary recovery so you can get up the next day and hop right back into being a productive citizen.
During my teenage years, the biggest headline around was Michael Jordan, and I played basketball, so it made sense to emulate his success. I went to camps and hustled boys at the playground. I studied footwork from games taped on TV. I noted how they took up and created space. How I practiced tossing the ball against the backboard and alley-ooping it to myself. I was building my own narrative. I was becoming that which I thought I was best at.
This repeated and intensified with rugby in college. You’re good at this. Get a plane ticket. We’ll give you this jacket. You’ll represent your country. What on earth could be a more honorable duty?
I chased my own tail until my legs gave out. Being rendered inactive made me both worthless and terrified. The me I knew and that others were interested in withered away and died. Left alone with my thoughts amidst the rubble, the only thing that made sense was to start re-stacking blocks. The lava rocks could cover up the leaves. It was reassuring to rediscover that what was tedious could be made alluring and puzzle-like.
Putting myself through rehab made fixing synonymous with finishing. I became adept at noticing what needs to be done. Undone now had a connotation of broken, and held even more impetus to be unceasing. With myself and my surroundings, both personal and inanimate, I became a machine of pursuit and completion.
In aggrandizing the Sisyphean task of finding and solving problems, I shortchanged my sense of wonder and curiosity.
By narrowing my world to a to-do list, I missed what was already good and fascinating. Fineness was replaced with potential improvements. I was never content. I rarely considered my place in space in the moment. I had forgotten how to appreciate all that already existed around me.
Clouds changed color if looked at long enough at the right angle. They spun and teased and reached into ever-newer shapes. Painted lines on the horizon. The way light filters into the living room at a certain time of day. Sitting in the tall grass that doubles as a parking lot when the fair comes to town. It could be a jungle of tranquility and a savoring of the senses if you let it.
Slowing down allows you to experience life differently. It makes you realize that the rules and codes that you live by are self-imposed, and though they might have helped you get where you are, perhaps there is a better method to enjoy all that you have come to set in place. Stuck for so long in the busyness of avoiding what I don’t want to be, I have not given myself the time to consider who I am. I can describe the phases of evolution, but not the being who exists in the current one.
The most accurate depiction I can come up with is that I am nothing. No thing, which translates to any thing, or conceivably, every thing. I have long since moved apart from a clipboard of tasks, but I have yet to live my life without one. I want the freedom and permission to exist harmoniously in an extreme without the gnawing guilt to reside more in-between. To let the situation or opportunity dictate the terms, and follow where it leads.
The day is near that having nothing to do isn’t painful to me. Where I don’t stress from my lack of stress. When I can revel in rest as much as I can feel accomplished in work. (I dare not use the precarious word ‘balance’, because even it needs pondering time for distinction.). Like most necessary transformations, the struggle starts to lessen when you make yourself open to disruption and discomfort. Without exposure to a contrarian existence, the best parts of you might be cheerfully withering away.