That magic feeling: nothing to do, nowhere to go!

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
No doubt it sounds odd to wax lyrical about the doubtful virtue of having nothing to do, nowhere to go. The want of project and design is for some their worse nightmare. Nonetheless in this frenetic world of constant preoccupation I can’t help but think that occasionally the random condition of idleness and lack of destiny is moderately attractive. Perhaps it is the rarity of the circumstance that buoys it. Perhaps it is the singularity of the location where the opening may present itself.  Perhaps it is merely capitulation to exhaustion which promotes it. Whatever the events that lead up to or surround it, having nothing to do and nowhere to go can be a magical feeling.

Indolence is not something I normally champion.  On the contrary for as long as I can recall I have been caught up in what perhaps is mistakenly credited as the existential necessity of employment.  No doubt it is a combination – and maybe a distortion – of the Protestant Work Ethic and the epistemological concept of Tabula Rasa. In summary, “you are what you do“.  That at least is my take on it. If you prefer a headier spin on it there’s this:

In the eleventh century, the theory of tabula rasa was developed more clearly by the Persian philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina in Arabic). He argued that the “…human intellect at birth resembled a tabula rasa, a pure potentiality that is actualized through education,” and that knowledge is attained through “…empirical familiarity with objects in this world from which one abstracts universal concepts,” which develops through a “…syllogistic method of reasoning; observations lead to propositional statements, which when compounded lead to further abstract concepts.” He further argued that the intellect itself “…possesses levels of development from the static/material intellect (al-‘aql al-hayulani), that potentiality can acquire knowledge to the active intellect (al-‘aql al-fa‘il), the state of the human intellect at conjunction with the perfect source of knowledge.”

Though it smacks of ineptitude, doing nothing and having nowhere to go is heralded by some as the supreme indulgence, akin to poetic daydreaming or mystical contemplation. Yet the inert state demands both opportunity and skill, the arbitrary collision of which is never assured.  The prerequisite is opportunity for without it there is obviously no chance of inactivity much less doing a good job of it.  Assuming one stumbles upon the moment of inaction it quickly becomes a challenge to make something of it. We are hopelessly programmed towards exertion and productivity.  I have for example heard it said that doing nothing is the hardest of all activities.

The opportunity to do nothing is largely serendipitous which of course is all the more reason to treasure it. Its frequency is after all uncommon. In the context of the animal kingdom we’re not so far removed from ignoble hunters and gatherers as we might flatter ourselves to be. Living for most of us is a non-stop unglamorous affair. It’s work, relentless work. Very few of us are afforded the luxury of having nothing to do.  It’s usually at best an hiatus, even an obstruction, as we hurl ourselves towards the accomplishment of multiple projects. Certainly there are some who are set on being busy for the sake of saying so but by and large most people succumb to legitimate performances, mandatory things that can’t possibly be ignored, starting with professional obligations, household necessities, taking care of children and family, even social and religious undertakings (though those latter commitments may be more psychological than real). I wager that we’d be hard-pressed to isolate anyone who didn’t have something to do. Even for those who chance upon the opportunity of vacuity, it isn’t long before something is proposed to fill the void. It practically offends our higher sensibilities to have nothing to do, nowhere to go. Being inert doesn’t exactly score top marks in our Western vernacular. What is more probable is that having nothing to do is either an accident of nature (and usually an exceedingly ephemeral one at that) or the product of calculated unemployment – popularly retailed as retirement.  I reiterate however that this is only a probability, first because accidents of nature are few and far between; and second because the queer object of retirement for many people is to be busy.  How often I have had to endure what has become the stock monologue of newly retired people to the effect that, “I’ve never been busier!  I’m taking this lesson, I’m on that board, we just took a bus tour, we’re flying out west to see the grandchildren, I’m enrolled for another degree at university…” and on and on and on! Really? What ever happened to retirement?  Or did we just change jobs?  Are you frightened to confront the prospect of idleness? Having trouble being alone with your thoughts?  Mortality getting to you? Trying to eclipse the tank running out of gas?

Forgive me, I really shouldn’t be so nasty. Who cares that people are in a perpetual state of motion!  Besides there is that popular doctrine of existentialism to deal with:

Sartre claimed that a central proposition of Existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which means that the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals—independently acting and responsible, conscious beings (“existence”)—rather than what labels, roles, stereotypes, definitions, or other preconceived categories the individuals fit (“essence”). The actual life of the individuals is what constitutes what could be called their “true essence” instead of there being an arbitrarily attributed essence others use to define them. Thus, human beings, through their own consciousness, create their own values and determine a meaning to their life.

If you embrace this concept, then hustle and bustle is where it’s at! Certainly it is possible to dilute the thrust of the thesis by suggesting mere thinking qualifies as an active ingredient but that attributes greater elasticity than intended in my opinion.

Existentialism (/ɛɡzɪˈstɛnʃəlɪzəm/) is the work of certain late-19th- and 20th-century European philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual.

Accordingly the tempered motto “nothing to do, nowhere to go” acquires a renegade contextuality. Adopting it risks converting one to a heretic. Yet in spite of this hazard I have opted instead to cherish that adventitious magic feeling – nothing to do, nowhere to go. All my life I have suffered the burden of impending necessity, the seeming inescapable need to do something or to be somewhere. I am certain I’ve even had anxious dreams about it. Relieving myself of this weight isn’t a matter of mere choice.  Who after all would prefer to be hounded by such pertinacious assignment! As I have suggested previously the confluence of circumstances which provide these relieving constituents is largely based on luck not design. But when the stars align in the proper order, when you’ve done everything imaginable that needs doing, when you’re neither embarrassed nor reluctant to lay down the trowel, then it’s an initiative worth pursuing. Enjoy it while you can for it isn’t long before the mechanics of living kick back into gear and the once languid enterprise of nothing to do, nowhere to go begins to dissolve and evaporate.