Monday, October 17, 2011

Idleness, Work & Virtue

The following spoken word essay was performed on October 15th 2011 at Cheap Theater. The theme of the evening was Idle. This was for me the first time performing an essay. My usual fare is either storytelling in the oral tradition or the reciting of poetry. So this night was an experiment and a stretch. I would suggest that you read the essay out loud for it is written to be heard. Hope you enjoy the essay and of course your feedback is welcomed. Cheap Theatre is held in a cabaret space next to a German restaurant and bar.

I am not sure what came over me but when the theme of this evening at Cheap Theatre was announced my soul leapt. The experience I would say was somewhat religious. As I reflect I believe this was due to the theme word idle. Initially what came to mind was not idle as being lazy but idol with a ‘o’ as in the worshipping of false gods. Now I should explain this transformation of the word idle to idol is perfectly understandable not because they are homonyms or homophones that are easy to transliterate but because I spent several years in ministry. I cannot tell you the number of hours spent in theology classes discussing idolatry. Now the discussion of idolatry was not focused on graven images but on money, success, power and the many other possible idols that turn us away from leading a moral life dedicated to compassion and justice.

Yes, I went to a seminary where God was associated with the poor, justice and compassion rather than identified with sending immigrants back to where they came from and eliminating social programs to reduce taxes. Yes, I went to a seminary where as a person of privilege I was educated to serve the poor and seek justice, and it was not about being served by the poor while paying unlivable wages to them.

After reflecting on the word idol with an ‘o.’ My mind quickly drifted to the word idle as in being lazy. And being who I am I began to contemplate the moral issues associated with idleness.

As a young boy I learned about the evilness of idleness. Sometimes the learning was direct and experiential as when told to get off my duff, do my chores and quit being lazy; however most of the time the lessons were subtle and covert, implicit rather than explicit. Now I never heard anyone directly quote Benjamin Franklin’s admonition “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” but the idea was silently woven through every facet of the culture. Beside the implicit message that “the idle man is the miserable man.” I was also taught explicitly and I still hear the voice of my mother saying, “A stitch in time saves nine,” “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “penny wise and pound foolish,” and “A fool and his money are soon parted.”

The cultural messages were clear and unspoken. The poor man, the underachiever and the unsuccessful man were idle man who lacked initiative, were reckless with their lives and possibly mentally and morally deficient. In fact my uncles made it very clear idle people were not just lazy but as a French author succinctly put it, “Idle people are often bored and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel.”(R. Adler) My uncles would point towards the poor neighborhoods, as perfect examples, were laziness and idleness caused crime and all other sorts of depravity.

As a youth my psyche was routinely imprinted with the warning that idle hands and minds were the devil’s workshop. “For Satan always finds some mischief still for idle hands and (minds) to do.”(I. Watts) I would begin my confession “Father it has been one week since my last confession. I had impure thoughts six times and I did impure actions six times.” I was lectured rather loudly about the dangers of idle hands and mind. Much to my embarrassment I am sure that my mother heard, as she waited to confess her sins. As the passionate lecture ended I was warned that if I continued and did not keep my hands and mind busy with virtuous actions I would soon go crazy. Red faced I would quickly leave the confessional keeping my head down as not to meet my mother’s gaze.

Now if these lessons on idleness were my only experiences this would be the end of the story and in fact there would be no story to tell you. There would be no plot, no conflict to resolve, no lesson’s to be learned and no redemption to be had. Further I would not be standing in front of you in this den of idleness were drinking and frivolity are encouraged and idle conversation the norm. Most likely I would be at home finishing up my chores or involved with some other terribly constructive activity rather than idling my time away performing for you.

Sundays for my family, the Sabbath, was a do nothing day. We’d go to church, eat breakfast usually consisting of eggs, bacon and sweet rolls and then do nothing. There was no other cooking on Sunday only snacks, not for religious reasons but just because. Sunday was the day to do as little as possible. No plans and no chores to be accomplished. Sunday afternoons my parents would steal themselves away to the bedroom shutting the door tightly for a nap. We children were given strict orders not to disturb them. Often on Sundays we visited grandma to talk, play cards, and watch football or maybe take a short trip to the lake. At the lake we would sit and do nothing things -eating, swimming, tanning and building sand castles. Sunday was the day to idle away. The rest of the week was busy working and preparing for work. There were moments of quiet sitting on the porch doing nothing but most of the week was a whirlwind of activity.

As a child I found great pleasure in doing nothing but I also was aware that my activities were dismissed simply as “play.” I often heard: “Wait into you get older. Enjoy it while you can. There’s no free lunch.”

As a young boy I learned that when I grew up I needed to earn my idle time or vacation as it became known. For fifty weeks of work I would earn two weeks of idle time. For five to six days a week of work I earned a few hours of leisure time per week. For forty some years of work I would earn the right to retire and be justified in idling. I saw the cost to my uncles in earning the privilege to have time to do nothing. Tired, unhappy, and broken by their work as a baker, sanitation worker and a laborer in a paper mill their lives were punctuated with poor health. I saw my uncle’s lives spent as they struggled to earn a living in order to have a small taste of the good life but they experienced very little nothing time before they died. I did not see the hard working man as “the happy man” that Benjamin Franklin promised. I saw as I grew that the rich had plenty of leisure time to travel, party and to do nothing. This was their right by their status as landowners, factory owners, and financial wizards. They knew how to earn money off the labor of others and in so doing acquired an abundance of leisure time. I saw this at the prep school I attended. These observations were enough to make me doubt Franklin and the others who in their pontificating assured me that the “happy man” was the busy man and the idle man plainly miserable.

In 1932 the philosopher and Nobel prize winner Bertland Russel wrote an essay In Praise of Idleness.
He writes:
I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.

In time I too have came to believe that the virtuous life is in living a life of idleness focused on doing nothing things rather than in working one’s life away. A case in point is the life of Jesus. He drank wine, worked sparingly, encouraged others to drop their work, encouraged the woman Mary to sit around and shoot the breeze while her sister Martha busily worked in the kitchen and in his sermons continuously spoke of feasts and parties. In general Jesus seemed quite happy and content roaming through the hills. In the end the authorities were not too happy with him but the authorities could not keep him down. Another example of an idler was the poet Rumi. This deeply spiritual Persian poet idled away days in a tent making love, drinking wine and from this deeply spiritual experience poured forth some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

In fact I came to agree with Robert Louis Stevenson in his Apology for Idlers when he writes “To be idle requires a strong sense of personal identity.” In his apology he describes St. Joan of Arc as an individual considered as an idler. He writes: When they told Joan of Arc she should be at home minding women's work, she answered there were plenty to spin and wash.

So what is the answer of establishing the virtue of idleness in our culture?

Let us fellow Jesus’ and Rumi’s examples, let us develop a strong sense of personal identity as Stevenson encourages and let us promote Bertrand Russels’ solution In the Praise of Idleness. He proposes:
…In countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing.


It is not enough to intellectualize about the virtue of idleness. What is necessary is an experience of idleness, a sacramental moment one might say. Poetry is one such vehicle of experiencing the sublime. So to finish my essay Carol Stoddart will join me and we will read my two voice poem “Nothing Things.” We will be accompanied with a metronome.

Nothing Things

sitting on the porch
drinking a cold beer
smoking a cigar

warm sun
gentle breeze

telling a story

a crow caws
a dog barks

speaking to my son
rocking in my chair

a child plays
a neighbor mows


a squirrel scampers
down a tree

nothing things
useless nothing things
are all i can be about