I’m writing, as I suppose will be usual this summer, from my balcony in St. Henri. I have a warm coffee filled with cardamom and honey, and the sun is shining down on the little box garden we planted last month. We’re growing snap peas and snow peas, cherry tomatoes and vine tomatoes, radishes and a dozen different herbs and spices. It’s a little crowded up here now, but we’ll have enough to share with the neighbours in a few months and it brings me a lot of joy to wake up in the morning and see how each plant has grown and changed. These moments are such blessings, to be able to breathe and reflect, but sometimes it makes me feel guilty. A project I have for the summer is to shake off that guilt for good.
The reality is that I have more work than I know what to do with—papers, briefs, reports to write, phone calls to make, budgets to revise, workshops to plan—but I’m not worried because it will inevitably get done. After years as an operative of the Cult of Busy, and years where busy-ness was more deeply part of my identity than I’d like to admit, I’m changing pace a little. There is tremendous pressure, especially I think in your mid-twenties, to define yourself by what you do rather than who you are. Part of clawing one’s way out of the quarter life crisis, at least for me, meant rejecting that pressure and seeking out space for an inner self.
Some of the deepest myths of capitalism come from the idea that progress is a tidy linear path onward and upward, that productivity has some inherent virtue. It’s those stories that make us anxious, that compel us to be busy for the sake of it, and most toxically, assert that busy-ness on others like some badge of honour and accomplishment.
I feel guilt off the clock because I feel like I could be doing more and therefore somehow being more: as though time spent gardening, having a drink with friends, practicing handstands and backbends or writing is somehow unproductive or valueless. I have a tattoo that reads vivez sans temps mort: a bit of an homage to the Situationists and a reminder from my younger self not to get complacent. At times I know I’ve used that line like a blunt weapon against myself, like this poisonous mantra reminding me to do all the things (!)—and fast. Of course that tendency is an ironic betrayal of the longer line the tattoo is born from, vivre sans temps mort et jouir sans entrave.
The reliance on full days and sleepless nights, either as a source of backwards pride or to inform a sense of self, is most destructive of all because it gets in the way of our ability to have long thoughts. To paraphrase a letter I wrote recently, it can be hard not to worry that years studying public policy better prepare you for a career writing dystopian science fiction than anything else. It’s precisely because the jadedness of Busy that comes along with it leaves just enough time for the social justice outrage machine but not enough for action. It lends you a moment to consider patching up holes but not enough to think about where the ship is headed.
So the project for the summer is thus: to nurture a more powerful kind of idleness, to stop being what I do, and to never feel guilty about sitting on the balcony again. And here is Mark Slouka, in Quitting the Paint Factory, on exactly this:
“A resuscitated orthodoxy, so pervasive as to be nearly invisible, rules the land. Like any religion worth its salt, it shapes our world in its image, demonizing if necessary, absorbing when possible. Thus has the great sovereign territory of what Nabokov called “unreal estate,” the continent of invisible possessions from time to talent to contentment, been either infantilized, rendered unclean, or translated into the grammar of dollars and cents. Thus has the great wilderness of the inner life been compressed into a median strip by the demands of the “real world,” which of course is anything but. Thus have we succeeded in transforming even ourselves into bipedal products, paying richly for seminars that teach us how to market the self so it may be sold to the highest bidder. Or perhaps “down the river” is the phrase.
Ah, but here’s the rub: 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. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had “too much time on our hands.” They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, “Quick, look busy.””