In Praise of Idleness

Blue Sky with Raindrop Ripples

I recently heard a commencement speech by critic James Wood in which he lamented the loss of pungency from our lives—so much is now sanitized or hidden away from the public eye—and exhorted would-be writers to search deep in their imaginations for the primary details that animate prose and poetry. On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life.

Sven Birkerts
The Mother of Possibility
Lapham’s Quarterly, Spring 2011

Related: Work Will Make You Happy (A Fairy Tale)

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