January 10, 2021 – Must we toil?

I’ve been processing what it means to qualify as ‘productive’. By that, I mean what it takes to be considered a contributing member of society. In other words, not a ‘bum’. Growing up, I was taught that one must continually keep ‘busy’. And the best way to achieve that was through physical work. Raking, mowing, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming, washing, folding. Honest work involved ‘movement’. No matter the task, the end goal was to achieve utter physical exhaustion. If you fell into bed at the end of the day, ‘job well done’. Lack of movement or being sedentary was viewed as ‘being lazy’. If I was ever ‘caught’ being still and wasn’t actually sleeping, it was not perceived well. Being still or being ‘idle’ have gotten a bad rap over the years. When I grew up, it was considered the worst 4-letter word. It was worse than the ‘c’ word, the ‘f’ word and the ‘s’ word combined. It was the most wasteful way to ‘conduct’ yourself or spend your time.

There are many quotes that frame idleness as being extremely bad. Here are a few: “Trouble springs from idleness, and grievous toil from needless ease.” That’s Ben Franklin’s opinion about it. You are familiar with Mr. Franklin, right? He’s the guy on the $100 bill! “Toil is no source of shame; idleness is shame.” Hesiod didn’t have a high opinion about it either. “Reading, solitude, idleness, a soft and sedentary life, intercourse with women and young people, these are perilous paths for a young man, and these lead him constantly into danger.” That’s a quote by Jean-Jacques Rousseau by the way. Geesh! That guy was hard core! He didn’t agree with idleness or reading or solitude or intercourse with women? I don’t imagine he had a very happy life. And then there’s this funny guy, Benjamin Jowett, that provided us with this ‘beauty’, “Research! A mere excuse for idleness; it has never achieved, and will never achieve any results of the slightest value.” I wonder how all of the scientists that worked on the Covid vaccine feel about that?

Of course, on the other hand, there are others that have determined idleness to be a good thing and have said as such: “Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” Virginia Woolf saw some positivity to it. “Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.” Soren Kierkegaard did as well. “I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble.” That’s how Agatha Christie felt about it and I tend to agree with her. “Idleness allows you to turn a situation from boredom to pleasure.” You can thank Tom Hodgkinson (a British writer) for that quote. He said this as well, “When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap.” Tom, if you’re reading this, I think I love you. You’re my kind of guy!

Look, I’ll be honest, I had a heck of a time finding many positive quotes about idleness. Most of them were very bad, it’s ‘devil’s work’ don’t you know? And I think that’s how most people view ‘the condition’ or ‘the act’. In fact, that’s how I was raised to view it, so I totally understand. But I also believe that you cannot constantly toil, toil, toil. At some point, you will wear yourself out. If you only knew how many times I worked myself to beyond exhaustion because I couldn’t or wouldn’t allow myself to stop. I used to call it ‘working through my walls’. It usually happened right after a move, when there was much to be done. I would physically work for hours at a time, taking the smallest of breaks to eat or rehydrate or use the restroom. After several hours, I would undoubtedly hit a ‘wall’. “No matter, keep moving,” I’d tell myself, “It’ll pass.” And it would! A second wall would appear and I’d work through it, too. But by the 3rd or the 4th? My body would revolt. When your hand starts to take on the shape of a ‘claw’, that’s your body telling you to stop.

I don’t know how to be idle and be ok with it. When I am still for too long, it doesn’t matter whether I am physically or mentally unwell, I cannot ‘rest’. I am plagued by guilt. The guilt is multiplied tenfold when I am not doing anything and my husband is. What happened today? Today, my husband tiled the bathroom and then after a short rest, he did the dishes. “No!” I told him, “Sit down! You’ve done enough. Go put your feet up!!” He wouldn’t budge. No matter what I said, he insisted on doing the dishes. What had I done up to that point? Woke up after noon, ate breakfast, checked my email, walked the dog, ate lunch, checked my email again, had a cup of tea and folded one load of laundry. In other words, not much! I had intended to do the dishes so things were more ‘even’ between us because it bothers me when he does so much when I do so little. “You’re cooking dinner, it’s the least I can do,” he countered. Yes, that’s true. I had just started working on dinner but it wasn’t a gourmet meal or anything, it was hamburgers and french fries.

Now imagine how I feel when he tells me that I don’t have to work. I don’t have to work, I can just be ‘idle’? That’s not fair! He has given me permission to stay home and spend my time however I wish while he’s required to head out the door each day and ‘run on a hamster wheel’? He just wants me to ‘be happy’. Who is this guy? “I love to blog,” I told him, “It makes me happy. But what if it never amounts to anything? I’ve got to find a way to earn money somehow.” Don’t I? Yes, I’m asking you, my loyal readers, don’t I? Isn’t that the ‘American Way’? You are born, you learn a ‘skill’, you dedicate your life to applying that ‘skill’ in a practical way while also pursuing companionship, claiming a ‘space’ to call your own, filling it up with stuff that brings you ‘comfort’, possibly starting a family, saving up for retirement, travelling a little before your bones get too brittle, spoiling your grandkids if you’re ever blessed with any, and then when you’re least expecting it, it’s all over. Just like that! Everything’s coasting along oh-so-nicely and then WHAM! You’re pushing up daisies!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be remembered for being ‘busy’ and a ‘hard worker’. Who gives a flying leap? I want to leave a better legacy than that behind. But that’s what was drilled into my head as a kid. Just because that’s what I was told, does that mean I have to blindly follow that path? Ordinarily, I would say, “YES!! Absolutely!!” However, I am beginning to question that. Is it really so wrong to do what I love, even if it doesn’t mean I never earn a dime? Is it really so terrible to spend my time writing even though it doesn’t produce anything necessarily practical? What if I never get a ‘book deal’? What if it amounts to nothing more than a means for me to record what I ‘think aloud’? When I pose these questions to myself, my first reaction is to put on the brakes. Who am I kidding?! I need to pull up the classifieds and find myself a j-o-b!! But if I were to do that, I would be dismissing everything my husband has said as well as not really looking at the ‘big picture’. The ‘big picture’ is that life is short and it’s getting shorter by the minute.

Time is no longer on my side. I’ve crossed the mid-century mark and I’m surviving on a kidney that was ‘loaned out’ to me (and I’m not giving it back in case you’re wondering). Because of that I’m living on borrowed time. If I am unable to get a job in order to pay off my house and travel the world and maybe buy a couple of new cars before I die, is it really so terrible? I don’t think it is. If I croak with a mortgage payment, the world will go on. Maybe the kids won’t get as much when they divide up my assets, but I think that’ll be the least of their worries. If I never make it to Australia or Japan before I depart for ‘the Great Beyond’, the sun will continue to rise in the east and set in the west. It’s true! If I am unable to buy another new car between now and when I’m turned into ashes and placed in a box and later stuffed into the back of someone’s closet, the crocuses and tulips will still break through the ground each spring and briefly dazzle us with their beauty.

I guess what I’m saying or at least what I’m trying to convince myself is that it is ok if I want to spend my remaining days/weeks/months/years enjoying the time I have left. I have my husband’s blessing, what more do I need? What I really need is to retrain my brain. I am in control of my life, I should focus on what makes me happy instead of living based on the standards or expectations of others. If we are able to pay our bills and keep a roof over our heads, what’s stopping me? As usual, I’m the only one getting in my way! If I ever figure out how to get out of my own way, you’ll be the first to know! Thank you so much for stopping by. For the folks that are ‘following’ me, I am grateful for you and the continued interest you have in reading about the variety of things I talk about each day. I’m no poet laureate or anyone with significant credentials to speak of but I do enjoy the opportunity to share things about my life and family or to just make simple random observations. If all goes well and I haven’t run you off, I trust you will return tomorrow as will I.


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