Idling in time

Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. . . . Extreme BUSYNESS, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation.

- R. L. Stevenson, An Apology for Idlers

It's been my great fortune to meet and get to know many people who are very unlike me.  In befriending folks, I change.  I become not necessarily more like them, but more thoughtful about me, more willing to question my assumptions, outlook and values.  Conversations plant the seeds of conversion:  I listen, mull things over, and find myself changed, a new belief upsetting and rebalancing the homeostasis of my selfhood.

And so it is for many of us.  I think of the millionaire hero of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, who goes to Africa to escape his anxiety about death.  He has has a voice in his head that keeps saying “I want.  I want.”  (These two words strike me as a fair precis of the human condition in the 20th century.)  Eugene Henderson’s furious wanting leads him from one busyness to another.  But in getting to know someone, a king who must kill a lion to protect his power, Henderson changes:  he stops or diminishes his wanting, and for the first time, learns to be at ease with himself.

In these buzzing times, one is apt to hear an even darker chant than that of Mr. Henderson.  A good deal of what passes for conversation these days could be distilled into “I want, I work, I want, I work.” 

The wanting, it seems to me, is abstract, an unknown desire unfulfilled, and the working not abstract at all, but concrete, marked by dread, tedium, and time spent doing things unrelated to one’s hopes and talents, which is to say, time killed.

Those of us who work and want (or work and yet still want, our grandparents might have noted) might learn a little from the happy idler.


Idleness, as R.L. Stevenson notes, is characterized by appetite, activity and awareness of one’s own character.  The idler is aware that idleness is just work (or play) done willingly by a fully living person.

I'm lucky.  Most of my paid labour has been of the sort in which I may idle (I hear the laughter) fruitfully and with pleasure.  Most of my unpaid work (house work, volunteering, the many gardens of life) has also brought the social and intellectual rewards sought by the idler.

Though we hear much about today's ultra-busy workers, in a strictly material sense, there’s never been a better time than the present for idlers.  A basket of food that took six hours' labour to earn in 1920 can now be had for 60 minutes’ (less onerous) labour.  The price of food, musical instruments, clothing, travel –  virtually all goods and most services –  has declined enormously in my own lifetime.

And yet to my eyes, idlers are few, toilers are many.  I want, I want floats in the halls of industry as well as, sad to say, the playgrounds of schools.  It appears futile to try to persuade the toilers to slow down.  "They cannot be idle," Stevenson noted, "their nature is not generous enough, and they pass those hours in a sort of a coma which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill."

The judgment is harsh.  I encourage the reader to do as this toiler aims to do.  I will not give up my job at the gold mill –  ore interests me, as does refining. 

But I won't spend a single minute, I hope, in a coma.  And I will moil less and idle more.

Jamie MacKinnon

Related reading:  http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/essays/the-mother-of-possibility.php?page=all