Why Doing Nothing Is Everything: The Art Of Quiet Contemplation

Carving out the space to do nothing—to just be—is harder than one might think in our extroverted culture. I can and I do, but I worry that at best I appear reclusive or weird, and at worst, rude or selfish.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have had to explain to people that when I am riding in the car and quietly looking out the window, or when I am sharing public spaces with people but not talking, nothing is wrong.

These days, when I am silently people-watching in a restaurant, amidst the throng of other diners who are riveted by their mobile devices or screens on the wall, I, thankyouverymuch, am fine. I might or might not post a Facebook photo of my food when it arrives, but I don’t like to stare into the palm of my hand when there are companions to talk or not talk with, and flickering candlelight on the table to slide into when conversation pauses.

I enjoy my own company and my own thoughts. I often find sounds, lights, and screens oppressive. Maybe I have sensory issues or maybe not, but I really don’t need to be in other people’s worlds all the time. When I’m lost in my own, I am socially recharging, or just thinking. I might be writing. Why do people assume something is amiss if you are “doing nothing?”

Rebecca Solnit, author of The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, describes it well:

“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.”

I bet that if Rebecca Solnit and I were riding in an elevator together that didn’t have a tiny screen with CNN on endless loop, we’d smile at each other and manage that brief encounter—going up or going down—without digital assistance. We might or might not talk. It would be totally fine.

Sometimes I space out. It’s like a door opens inside my mind and there is something interesting behind it and I have to check it out. I’m an on-and-off good listener. Mostly on, but dang, it is busy inside my head sometimes. Winnie-the-Pooh said: “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” That seems as good a metaphor as any for what is going on.

Have I mentioned how much I love my bed? This might be a good place to do it. I just love it. So much. It’s a Sleep Number bed with a pillow-top mattress cover. That thing is like a giant marshmallow and I seriously cannot be in there enough hours. I sleep and watch TV and read and enjoy my husband in bed, but I also luxuriate in my own thoughts while I’m burrowed under the covers in the dark like a hibernating groundhog. You should be jealous of my bed—it is that incredible.

And speaking of beds, I like them better than parties, and I like them especially after parties. Carving out the space to do nothing—to just be—is harder than one might think in our extroverted culture. I can and I do, but I worry that at best I appear reclusive or weird, and at worst, rude or selfish. It may take a Festivus miracle during this season of merriment, but I hope to find plenty of cozy conversation in the corners of decorated rooms abuzz with holiday commotion. Intimacy can be fashioned out of any shared yearning for depth and meaning in a whirling gyre of voices and passed hors d’oeuvres. Afterward, recharging alone, late at night, is delicious.

Doing nothing is grossly underrated. Doing nothing is everything.

Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

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