Do Nothing: A precious and arduous activity

Giovanni Cucci, SJ

 Giovanni Cucci, SJ / Spirituality / 11 May 2020

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The difficulty with being by yourself

A time of enforced rest – such as the period of isolation to cope with the coronavirus pandemic – can also provide a valuable lesson. Many have reflected on the significance of this serious epidemic in this respect. Among the many ideas, we would like to take up one well known in the spiritual tradition: take time simply to do nothing.

You can occupy time, kill, fill or cheat it, perhaps by sitting in front of the TV with a beer and crisps. Or, worse, you can yield to the insidiousness of that vice the new web of discoveries offers with its enormous possibilities and equally devastating consequences.[1] All this is the exact antithesis of “doing nothing.”

Simply being by oneself can be stigmatized as a vice, a form of laziness; at the same time it presents itself as the ideal life situation, free from commitments and tasks. But when you make a conscious decision to do nothing, it becomes both easier and harder. Easier because you don’t need any particular activities or proposals, you simply have to remain silent. Harder because our mind is full of images and thoughts, and it is necessary to detoxify from this enormous build-up. This takes time, effort and, if you have never done it, you can easily become discouraged.

An article on psychology that appeared a few years ago, obviously without envisaging the current emergency, began with this very question: “When was the last time you did nothing, nothing at all? Not reading, not watching television, not checking your emails, not taking care of your career […]? When did you let yourselves go all the way to the end of doing nothing, to the emptiness that occurs when all activity ceases and only the diaphragm rises and falls to the rhythm of breathing?”[2] No possibility of escaping the encounter with yourself?  This possibility is often seen as an ideal not within our reach, because there are too many things to do, or, more realistically, because when we are forced to do nothing (as is the case today), we struggle with boredom and frustration. It is perhaps for this reason that often, when we go on holiday, we return more stressed than before.

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