Maybe it’s just the incredibly ambitious and creative company I like to keep, but it seems to me that just about everyone I know feels like their life is absolutely filled to the brim with stuff. We don’t just work, we squeeze in our personal passion projects and we go to grad school and we pay our bills and we go to the gym and we visit friends, and quickly, life can become one big whirlwind of a schedule.
Our days are marked by our levels of productivity, and each task left uncrossed is a reminder of our daily shortcomings, incompetence, failure. There’s never enough time. We scorn our lack of focus.
In the book Excess of Being, author Lera Auerbach writes that “aging happens when growing stops.” We must always be striving and pushing forward.
Of course, I agree with Auerbach’s words – we should be more concerned with how old (or young!) we feel than with the year on our birth certificate. The moment we stop learning is when we truly start to die – or as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.”
But between the growing and the discipline and the learning, there must be time of rest. There is a point when we all must take a break from the hurricane of real life, and simply be.
In the hugely popular autobiographical novel Eat Pray Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert explores the idea of simply… doing… nothing. Amidst a midlife crisis, Gilbert jets off to Italy, and soon finds herself feeling guilty that she’s done nothing but “learn a few Italian words and eat.”
A new Italian friend reprimands Gilbert for her inability to take it easy – that an American’s idea of relaxing is spending the weekend in front of the TV after working themselves into exhaustion all week long. He presents to her the concept of la dolce far niente, or ‘the sweetness of doing nothing.’
What if we considered “doing nothing” to be equally as important as the endless tasks we cross off our lists every week? What if we fought the self-instilled urge to fill every free hour, minute, second, breath with a productive task? How would our days change if we made solid attempts to step away from our oh-so-very important schedules and embrace simple purposeless moments of life? What if we stopped the glorification of busy?
I once heard someone say, “Americans feel like they need a thesis statement to travel.” Why is this the case?
What if when we traveled, we adopted la dolce far niente – breaking from our guidebooks, allowing our senses to experience the sights and smells and sounds of a foreign land, and simply tasting the sweetness of being in a new place?
A few years ago, I spent an April day in the south of England with a German boy. Our initial plan had been to visit Brighton and its world-famous pier and beaches, but somewhere along the way, we ditched that route. We stopped following the GPS, we stopped searching for the right exit, and we chose a dusty back road instead of the gray highway. With nothing else to do, we watched the quaintness that dots the green English countryside in the form of cottages and sheep and low stone walls.
With an abandoned itinerary behind us and no idea where this newly blank day would take us, we drove. We ended up in Dover. We pulled over to catch a glimpse of the white chalk cliffs, and because it was a sunny day, were able to see France across the English Channel. FRANCE.
The sweetness of our no-plan took us into Dover Castle, where we got caught kissing behind thousand-year-old tapestries. We popped into a little farm to buy apples, a gas station to buy candy bars, and had a picnic by a small pond somewhere in Kent. We sleepily drove home in the evening, listening to Frank Sinatra and old country tunes because it was inexplicably the only music in his 1970s Volkswagen van. We spoke of nothing, and it was really sweet.
Once, while scrolling through one social media app or another (and NOT enjoying the sweetness of doing nothing), I came across this phrase:
“Stop a moment, cease your work, and look around you.” Or, as the great Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”
Imagine the things our eyes would notice if we could break from our email inboxes or our social media accounts and our TV shows and all of the other things that aid in our very important, productive lives.
You’d have a different adventure than mine in southern England. Maybe you’d stay at home and take a walk around your neighborhood, and maybe you’d face forward while you walked instead of down at your phone. It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you release your life for a little while and bask in the sweetness that comes. La dolce far niente.