The other day, when I should have been working, I picked up a paperback that had been lying around the house—Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Normally, I don’t give much credence to book blurbs, but I have to say the words “utterly engrossing,” “mesmerizing,” “addictive” and “compelling” held true for this page-turner.
All morning, it was a game of cat and mouse. I’d read a few pages of Larsson; then I’d get back to work. By mid-afternoon, I was hooked, and the rest of the day was irretrievably lost to the girl with the tattoo.
I suppose that once in a while it’s okay to take a mental health day. But it raises questions, especially for those of us who are self-employed or run our own business. How much downtime do we allow ourselves? How often do we hang up a “gone fishing” sign and knock off early?
Last year, I worked nearly every day. I took off one day in June and a few days around Christmas. This year, I am trying to be more balanced. I took off a week in January, and I have another week of vacation planned next month. I’m also trying to set aside time each day to relax and think.
What’s that, you say? Slacker?
Actually, a lot of artists and psychologists will tell you that a little laziness, daydreaming or just goofing off are good for creative thinking. In describing her writing routine, Joyce Carol Oates once said, “I have always spent most of my time staring out the window, noting what is there, daydreaming or brooding.”
I prefer the word indolence. Indolence has its origin in the Latin “indolentia,” meaning freedom from pain. It’s a neutral state in which neither pain nor pleasure is felt, hence its association with idleness and laziness. So if the curse of our human condition is pain and toil and suffering (and busyness), you might say that indolence is its reprieve.
I don’t regard indolence as a character defect—as was once thought—or the moral equivalent of sloth, one of those seven deadly sins we’re supposed to avoid at all cost. No, I view indolence more charitably—not a virtue but not necessarily bad, either. As Steinbeck says of laziness, it’s a state that’s conducive to contemplation. Without it, there can be no balance in our lives.
The English Romantic poet John Keats wrote his “Ode on Indolence” in the spring of 1819. It’s a mediocre poem compared to “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Mockingbird,” which he finished the same year. Yet, Keats told a friend, “the thing I have most enjoyed this year is writing an ode to Indolence.”
In a letter to his brother George, Keats said of indolence, “In this state…the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown…This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.”
Indolence, then, is that sweet spot where the cares of this world melt away, if only temporarily. Indolence must have tugged at Keats because he had a lot to worry about in his short life. He had given up studying to become a surgeon so that he could devote his life to poetry, a decision he brooded over because he knew he would never have any money. His father had died when Keats was just eight. His mother died six years later of consumption, a disease that would take away his brother Tom and cut short Keats’ life at the age of 25.
The epigraph for the poem, “They toil not, neither do they spin,” comes from Matthew 6:28, where “they” refers to the lilies of the field. The verse is part of Jesus’ admonition not to worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air, Jesus says; they don’t sow or reap, and yet God feeds them. Or take the lilies. They don’t labor or spin, yet they are dressed in splendor.
It’s a message that Keats would have appreciated. Giving up the rigors of a medical career to devote his life to writing enabled him to become one of England’s greatest poets. The irony is that he would never know success in his life, nor was he ever made aware of a sizable inheritance that would have made his life much easier.
Needless to say, whenever we strike out on our own, we have our share of doubts and setbacks—both imagined and real. Brief periods of indolence are to be expected, perhaps even prescribed. They provide a respite from worry and stress, give us time to rejuvenate, and prepare us for bursts of creativity and inspiration.
So it’s okay to listen to a nightingale, lose yourself in a novel, walk along the beach or simply delight in “the blissful cloud of summer-indolence.”