Did you know that in some cultures working more than four hours a day might be considered laughable? This week, I’m reading a book called Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream by William Powers. An exploration of the lives of “wildcrafters” in North Carolina, this book is inspiring on many levels, but in the chapter, “The Idle Majority,” I was particularly struck by the story of Power’s interaction with a man from the West African country of Gambia.
Powers had shared with the man how workers in the United States and Europe waged decades of union battles to win an eight-hour workday. The author admits that he is a little proud to be able to share a bit of Western labor history with the man, as a way to inspire him in his own struggles. (Disclaimer: I am proud of this history as well, and this article in no way pays disrespect to those amazing, essential, and courageous strikers who fought long and hard for the working class! But, I also think it’s important that we challenge certain accepted paradigms about the nature of work and how life energy is spent).
Rather than oohing with admiration, the man bursts out laughing. Between guffaws, he tells Powers that he and others in Gunjur (the town where the conversation takes place) work no more than three or four hours a day. He can’t imagine why people in such a rich country like the United States would fight to work more, rather than less. Powers uses this story to illustrate the differences in how work is perceived across the globe. While in the U.S., work is seen as our birthright, our destiny, and as the only truly worthy way of spending time(aside from buying things w e can’t really afford), other cultures place more value on the free time available outside of work. The time for dreaming, walking, musing and bonding with community.
This anecdote got me thinking about the concept of idleness, and the amount of time we allow ourselves for dreaming, wandering, and just being. I don’ttend to feel like my day has being remotely useful unless I have crammed it full of duties, tasks, and activities. Taking a moment in the afternoon to read and drink coffee rather than working, fills like a sin. Doing yoga in the morning and going for a long walk with the dog seems gluttonous, and perhaps even subversive. Forget about just sitting and doing “nothing.” What? Is that even possible? Yet, these are the moments that give me the most room to breathe, the space to think, to conjure ideas. Fortunately, I am have stumbled upon more and more writers and thinkers who believe in the power of idle hands.
In her classic book on writing and creativity, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland dedicates an entire chapter to dawdling and spacing out and sitting with doing.
“So you see, the imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.”
And when I read this, I think: Here’s to the slow, big ideas! Cheers to allowing the time and the space to let thoughts develop into something beyond the expected! Here’s to moodling..and dawdling..and idling….here’s to breaking up the Puritan work ethic and replacing it with something more expansive, yielding, and thoroughly creative. Cheers to leaving the paint factory and going into the sunlight!
On Friday, I will posts some links to other writings on the connection between being idle and being creative. Until then, what do you think? Is idleness subversive in fast-paced American society? When do your slow, big ideas seem to rise to the surface?