In an article last Saturday, Tim Kreider threw a punch at the old Puritan adage that says “an idle mind is the Devil’s workshop.” Idleness, he argues, is a requisite part of the creative process that we often sacrifice to increase productivity. But are we really being productive?
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. It almost makes you wonder whether loafers, goldbricks and no-accounts aren’t responsible for more of the world’s great ideas, inventions and masterpieces than the hardworking.
“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play. That’s why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.” This may sound like the pronouncement of some bong-smoking anarchist, but it was actually Arthur C. Clarke, who found time between scuba diving and pinball games to write “Childhood’s End” and think up communications satellites.
If our idle time is so precious, we ought to be concerned with the way we are spending it. Many of our small opportunities for reflection are spent thumbing iPhone games and tweaking Facebook tags. Which types of play in your life facilitate the “necessary idleness” that Kreider harps upon—and which just keep you busy?