We live in a culture that encourages and rewards busyness. Communications continue via social networks 24/7 so that even after the nine to five grind we are often still picking up emails and scrolling through an endless feed of news updates, comedy memes and assorted infotainment. We’re encouraged to believe that there is real moral value in being purposeful and productive invdividuals with a robust work ethic - so that if you’re an over-caffeinated, stressed-out, besuited and well heeled corporate high-flyer with well-toned abs and a hectic schedule of all-day boardroom meetings and conference calls, resulting in a healthy bank balance, then you are thought to be winning on the capitalist hamster wheel of incessant activity we choose to call life. Spending all day slobbing out on the sofa eating donuts or knocking back white Russians in a dressing gown like the Big Lebowksi, or discovering that your real talent is for making up acronyms while staring out the window stuffing gingernuts in your mouth - such aimlessness is frowned upon and occasions shame and disapproval. We lambast those of us who have no sense of urgency, languid lotus-eaters, and meanwhile the red tops daily publicise disapprobation for benefit claimaints’ sedentary lifestyles.
According to academic and psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, based at Goldsmiths University in London, it is absolutely necessary that we find time to cease our frantic activity in the interests of living more deeply and more fully.
His new book, Not Working: Why We Have to Stop, is a defence of idleness, a call to give in, ocassionally, to the downward gravitational pull of inertia and lethargy, and a reminder that we should seek to define ourselves outside the parameters of what we do.
“I’ve always been something of an idler at heart and had this attraction in literature and culture to idler figures, so that was the base inspiration for the book. I had this particular love of Snoopy, who spends the whole time sleeping and eating. And I loved day dreamers who spend their days with their heads in the clouds.
“This book is all about about being able to escape the urgency and anxieties that everybody else always seems to be caught up in. In doing so you are admitted to this other space of play and imagination.
“The slob is this great pop culture figure and a recurrent character whom we admire in art but less so in real life. Lebowski, Snoopy, Homer Simpson, Chaucerian slobs, Shakespeare’s Falstaff - we like our slobs as cultural icons but inveigh against them in real life.”
We might agree that a mix of economic necessity, status anxiety and indoctrination keeps us adhering to this notion of busyness as intimately bound up with virtue. Most of us need to do the early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine not exactly because we want to, but because we have mortgages and bills to pay and protracted inaction on a mass scale would certainly herald unmitigated disaster. If we all just downed tools and kicked back it would be the very collapse of civil society itself, an apocalypse occasioned by sloth - one of the seven deadly sins. Our disdain for laziness is well recorded in the Bible. Sloth is especially dangerous because it is a gateway sin that leads to other acts of immorality, the devil makes work for idle hands.
We can agree that too much inaction is likely to be a bad thing, a way of inducing depression, ennui and boredom. We need activity - albeit checked by periods of rest.
Why does Josh feel we have this sense of shame or disappropation against idleness? “Culturally speaking we find that this sense of shame associated with idleness goes back quite a few hundred years. You can see it in the Bible, which invites us to lead lives of puposefulness, and is aware of the manifold temptations of idleness; sloth is the worst of the seven deadly sins according to medieval theologians.
“Conversely, the deification of indolence in classical antinquity goes all the way back.
“We can find different conceptions of the gods who tended toward sleep and ideleness and inactivty. There have always been gods who tended towards activity and gods who tended towards inactivity. There was Nix, the god of night, Morpheus, the god of dreaming, and Agea, which literally means inactivity; she guarded the cave of sleep and stood for doing nothing.
“Culture over the centuries has tended to moralise activity as good and inactivity as bad and I’m engaged in interrogating that. Over time we’ve come to shroud inactive impluses in suspicion.
“The person who doesn’t know how to pause or zone out for a few minutes, out of the immediate demands of the external world, in a way is reduced to what they are doing at any one moment. Where are they going to find the space for contemplation and imagination?
“Im not anti-work and I’m not anti-doing, I’m simply arguing for the positives of periods of languor.”
Being hyper-busy all the time, and until we are on the very point of burnout, this is certainly unhealthy, and it has been so fetishised by our culture that we no longer see exhaustion as anomalous - hell, we’re all burnt out here at the coalface of corporate captialism. So we might wonder, have we forgotten to draw a distinction between doing and being? Who are we when we are not doing? Can we have authentic inner lives or be thoughtfully self-conscious about existence, that we might embrace it more fully, if we are always on the go, without ever stopping to mooch and think? Indeed, can we become spiritually aware, if endlessly busy? Does creativity and imagination flourish best amid a hectic schedule or is dossing necessary for the germination of creative ideas and the replenishment of the self? If we are consumed with needing to respond to immediate demands of - the laundry cycle, the tax return, the status update - the headlong rush into practical action - we are never allowing ourselves to simply be, to the detriment of our chances of fulfilment and contentment.
“The clinician in me knows that lying in bed all day eating donuts is the gateway to depression,” says Josh. “Protracted inertia can attract all sorts of pathologies.
“I’m not trying to swing the pendulum completely in the other direction. What I’m saying isn’t just about encouraging people to find a better work life balance, it’s more existential than that, it’s more about reaching a place where we can develop a better understanding of who and what we are.
“We need to be thinking about who we are outside of work, because there are real problems with entrenching ourselves in a solely work placed identity.
“I talked to a young girl about this earlier in the year who has taken to asking people at parties not about what they do but about what they love, and I thought that was rather wonderful.
“We need to interrogate anew what we value in life and who we are outside our jobs and routine commitments.”
l Not Working: Why We Have to Stop by Josh Cohen is published by Granta Books (£14.99). He will be at No Alibis Bookstore, Belfast, Sunday October 27 at 2pm.