The Art of Doing Nothing

View from My Windshield Today

View from My Windshield Today

In honor of the people who, because of today’s snow storm, had to spend a good bit of time doing nothing, I thought I’d post this entry that originally appeared at the Religious Herald. In times when we are not able to do what we wish to be able to do otherwise, I find it best (though not easiest) to make the best of the moment and practice doing nothing. Prayers for those who continue to have to break routine tonight because of being stuck in places that are not home.

The art of being busy is not art at all. It is illusion — movement masked as purpose, distracting one’s audience from realizing that there is not much going on at all. The real art, the difficult, lost, and hard art, is in doing nothing.

And I mean nothing. I don’t mean distractedness, that space where we use some means of “entertainment” to distract us from what is otherwise going on in our lives. That, in and of itself, can be a kind of busy-ness. The ”nothing” I am referring to is ironically bound to and wrapped up in intentionality. One must be purposeful in setting aside what seems like it must be done.

I’ll be honest. Even writing these words causes me some measure of anxiety. I do not find it easy to “do nothing.” I always have something else I know needs to be done. As a pastor, there is always something to read, always more prayer to be had, always someone else to visit. As a husband and father, there are always more and better ways to be present with my wife and children. These are things I want and “need” to do.

But I cannot do them well if I don’t spend some time doing nothing. I become an automaton, going through the motions of my life. I bring neither energy nor creativity to my family or church.

In a non-spiritualized context, I’d call this the “shower principle.” The shower principle is based on the idea that one’s best ideas often come when they are in the shower. It is not that the shower has magical powers (perhaps?), but rather it is that in the shower one automatically enters into a pattern of doing nothing. Most of us do not carefully read the instructions to “Rinse, Wash, Repeat” and make sure that we follow them to the exact letter. As adults, we have rather established the patterns by which we achieve cleanliness. We don’t have to think about it, and as we wash we allow our minds to blissfully wander.
You know what happens next. There is this beautiful “Aha!” moment. Suddenly, some unsolvable problem becomes solvable. Suddenly, we gain a new clarity about the way that the world really works. Suddenly, ideas are springing forth from places that we had not previously considered.

This is normal. This is documented. In fact, the “shower principle” is such a reality that companies like 3M, one of the largest patent holders in the U.S., encourage their employees to spend work time each day not focusing on the task at hand. They have realized that this actually creates more creative work at their company. Next time you use a Sticky Note (TM), think about that.
In a spiritualized context, however, I’d prefer to think about the “shower principle” as “soul work.” The mystics have long known that “soul work” doesn’t occur when we force it, but rather when we allow ourselves to fall into grace. Grace, by definition, assumes that one is bringing nothing to the interaction. One does not work for it; one simply allows oneself to be overwhelmed by it.

But we are awful busy, us religious folk both in and out of church, working at it.
And look at the results. We are largely worn down, dying out and out of creative solutions. So what do we do? We work harder.
We have to stop. We have to get back to that space where we inhabit a deeper reality than the immediate and seemingly urgent. We are fooling ourselves into oblivion.

Here’s what I propose. Get out your calendar. What things on it can go? What things on it do you think can’t go? Let’s get rid of the latter first.

Anxious? I know I am. I’m anxious because I’m realizing how much I have idolized my busy-ness. It is a dastardly deed to kill those things which I’ve claimed sacred or allowed others to claim as sacred on my behalf. Killing idols is hard work. Sometimes we have to wander for 40 years in the wilderness of a meaningless but busy life to let them die. Even then, those are always waiting to sneak back into the Promised Land.

It’s going to take all of us, entire communities, to keep them out. It’s going to take all of us to model for one another and the world that it is better to do the important things well and fully than do many illusory things. This is our calling in the modern world and its trappings. We need to do more nothing, and in doing so find the creative spark we’ve lost along the way.
But this idol of busy-ness is one that lives in many of our sanctuaries and homes. As tired as I am of it, I need help killing it. But I know I’ll never worship the one God fully until this one is melted away. Won’t you go to the Promised Land with me?

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