Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The art of doing nothing

I find my cat amusing as well as refreshing company because her life of utter simplicity seems based on doing absolutely nothing that can be construed as useful or productive.  And my life has always been built around getting tasks done. So I look at her in amazement.

I feel guilty doing nothing, and most people today seem insanely busy, endlessly finding things to do to occupy spare minutes, as if in a mad race with time and death.

But a recent book by Andrew Smart (Autopilot: the Art and Science of Doing Nothing) argues that we should do less, not more: idleness is not only good but essential for the brain. It is one of the most important activities in life. Talk about counterintuitive. As an American, I was influenced by the Protestant work ethic, which says, a busy  person is a happy person and idleness is the devil's workshop.

(I found a review with such extensive excerpts from the book on Shane Parrish's blog Farnam Street that I'm not sure I need to read the book itself. I am, after all, too busy with other things.)

Excessive busyness, Smart says, is bad for the brain and has serious health consequences. It "destroys creativity, self-knowledge, emotional well-being, your ability to be social--and it can damage your cardiovascular health. . . Through idleness great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness."

So daydreaming is necessary for creativity. Letting the mind rove freely and breathe is basic to anyone who wants to write.

Allowing ourselves to be idle for a day each week at least is basic to the Sabbath tradition. What about an hour or two each day? Can we do that without crippling guilt?

Smart even argues that boredom is a key to self-knowledge. Yet boredom is not the same as idleness.  I have often reflected on the ambivalence of boredom. People with too much time on their hands tend to be restless and unhappy, and the fear of running out of things to do--a common problem for kids during the long summer break--can be anxiety-producing. Is that what boredom is?

Many say that boredom is a manifestation of depression. Kathleen Norris' book on Acedia (often associated with medieval monks) goes in this direction. Does idleness lead people in a productive society like ours to boredom?  Is being bored the price we pay for happy moments of having achieved something?

The questions about the relation between idleness and boredom are intriguing and important. So, apparently, is our need to let our brains rest, not just in sleep, but in creative daydreaming.

So imitating your cat for a while each day might well be productive--but in a different sense from the one valued by the activity-driven culture. It seems that Mr. Smart is on to something important.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Entering the Blogosphere

This is a notice from a proud husband about his wife's latest literary achievement:  Having published ten books for children and ten other books for adults on Amazon's Kindle, Lynn Schiffhorst today launched herself into the blogosphere with her own blog:

Her blog, the work of someone generally reluctant to embrace the new technology, is actually called "Starshine and Cat Tails."  She explains why in her initial post.

Lynn, whose poetry has been published in a 1989 book by the University of Florida Press, has been writing fiction for children for many years. Thanks to Kindle, her books of poems, Spoons on the Moon and The Green Road to the Stars, introduced readers to "quiet rhymes for quiet times" (ideal bedtime reading for kids). Since then, she has done several novels for older children (age 9-12) set in Denmark and a group of "feline detective novels" set in Manhattan, ideal for adults who are cat lovers.

There are also stories about a whimsical ghost named Giggle and several collections with holiday themes. The list can be seen on Amazon.

I am happy to have been part of this literary launch and equally happy to recommend her work to the wider world.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why Boredom is Interesting

Boredom, it seems, is good for us: it can allow us more for altruism; and the daydreaming associated with much boredom can be a source of creativity. And yet....if we have too much time on our hands, with time to be bored, maybe we have gone off course in our lives.

So reports Kate Greene in Aeon magazine, summing up what some scientists claim. 

The more commonly heard view is that boredom is negative and leads to such things as overeating, drug abuse, poor work performance, and accidents.

I have often associated boredom with an emotional state, akin to depression, a fear of running out of interesting things to do. It is impossible to imagine people never being bored. Is there such a thing as a teenager or other student who isn't bored some time?

However we define it, boredom is interesting. There are at least two types, maybe more. Situational boredom occurs when a task or environment fails to hold our interest, like staring at a computer screen all day. Existential boredom is much broader: life itself is seen as lacking purpose and meaning.

What is interesting is why we become bored, especially when we are engaged in seemingly exciting activities. The paradox of boredom, Greene says, is that it occurs often among astronauts, explorers, sailors, firefighters, and soldiers. Here, boredom can be a real danger.

In every field, it seems, some downtime is inevitable; we must take the dull along with the exciting.  What about fear? Greene does not mention it in her article. Isn't the fear of not being fully engaged with people or ideas or activities at the root of much boredom?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dreaming in league with God

I have probably spent too much time, and too much space here, speculating about the meaning of God, as if I could ever come up with a final definition. I've done so largely because so many non-theists have written books in recent years that assume that "God" means a being "up there" somewhere who, like a heavenly Santa Claus, controls our lives, rewarding and punishing us. I have tried to articulate a more grown-up notion of divinity, drawing mainly on the intellectual study of theology.

But maybe the whole thing has little to do with head, and all with the heart--the feelings. And with the acceptance of a certain vagueness in dealing with a mystery.

I was interested to see a recent article in the NY Times by Howard Wettstein, who says what many others have no doubt thought: that prayer and a religious life do not require any definite concept of God. What is fundamental, he says, is the experience of God.

"Prayer, when it works, yields an awe-infused sense of having made contact," he writes, about the things in our lives that really matter. He thinks of prayer as sharing our commitments with a "cosmic senior partner" in what A. J. Heschel called "dreaming in league with God."

I guess this means that effective prayer puts us in communion with others and with the totality of creation in a way that we feel is meaningful--even if we never have a clearly defined sense of who the "partner" we communicate  with is.

I would have to add to this the basic scriptural revelation that the God with whom we dream is a loving and living presence in and around us.