In praise of nothing

By on

I’ve a colleague working in social care. Part of their week is spent at a community centre. It’s a challenging role. There’s no time for idleness. Nor would anyone advocate it, I imagine. But what about fallow? Rest. Respite. A simple lull in the day?

Chatting about the work, I learned how most staff spent their lunch breaks sitting with centre users. But shouldn’t management encourage them to take a break, I asked. Surely, everyone needs a break. Fields need fallow, so, I believe, do people. I speak in praise of doing nothing.

Poet William Henry Davies, asks the question:

“What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.”

I am reminded of one role I had. The first few years, I rarely left my desk during the day, unless for a meeting. But eventually, I started having lunch outside again, got more fresh air, stopped working weekends. I had fallow time. I had time to stand and stare.

Samantha Peters: "Idleness, respite, lull, are the soil from which ideas can grow, creativity can flower, and wellbeing can flourish."

With this, my creativity returned. My wellbeing improved. My bandwidth, for myself, and for others, increased. I felt more equipped to handle the organisation’s challenges.

Oscar Wilde called idleness an exquisite art. Virginia Woolf said idleness and dreams allow submerged truth to float up. I find this to be true. My best ideas for work emerge in moments of lull and respite. They come from doing, well, not much at all.

But not everyone approves of idleness. Henry Ford said it warps the mind. Voltaire urged us to shun it. Unfortunately, fallow doesn’t show up on the bottom line. It cannot be valued; at least not obviously. And therein lies a problem.

Let me explain. It’s been argued that people have an optimal level of stress. Once exceeded, we are less able to enter into others’ concerns. Think of the pandemic. Think of the current economic and political uncertainties. These have, inevitably, squeezed our bandwidth, both inside work and out.

Despite this, we aren’t seeing much on respite or fallow in the current dialogue about work, it’s all inflation, cost-of-living crisis, pay increases, strikes, and so on. Yes, we need to think about what’s needed to attract or retain staff. But if all we’re thinking about is ‘money’ and ‘pay’ right now, we’re missing something. Money won’t expand or revive bandwidth.

A question we need to address, and quickly, is how our people can rejuvenate during their working day, week-in, week-out and longer term, after this great squeeze.

American preacher, Hosea Ballou, claimed: “Idleness is emptiness; the tree in which the sap is stagnant, remains fruitless.” I disagree. Instead, like poet Tomas Tranströmer, I believe there are times you should ‘Just breathe’.

Idleness, respite, lull, are the soil from which ideas can grow, creativity can flower, and wellbeing can flourish. We shouldn’t see idleness as a state of emptiness, but as a precursor to possibilities. An abundant void.

Or as Tranströmer would put it, you are not empty, you are open.

For more information on the Being Well Together programme see: beingwelltogether.org

Dr Samantha Peters is Chair of the Being Well Together Committee, British Safety Council


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