Fallow Time: Idleness Is a Virtue

"John William Godward - Dolce Far Niente (1904)" by John William Godward - Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Godward_-_Dolce_Far_Niente_(1904).jpg#/media/File:John_William_Godward_-_Dolce_Far_Niente_(1904).jpg

Work is a very human concept. If the animals related closest to us are acquainted with its tedium, it is because they are domesticated by us and forced to aid us in our endeavours. Other mammals tend to take shortcuts through life. If their needs can be met by doing the bare minimum, they will, anyone who has ever had a pet will agree. It is highly likely we lived in much the same way for most of our history. Even though our lives were short, and harsh, a nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle would guarantee ages of empty time. Time must have seemed as abundant as the vast landscape that surrounded us. There hardly was an elsewhere to think of, and as a consequence, people must have lived fully present in the here and now, eating, hunting and sleeping in accordance with the demands of their body and their environment. Before we adopted a sedentary lifestyle, there was no reason to acquire a multitude of tools and stores. Only that which could be carried or stored safely was useful. At the dawn of agriculture, an insidious, inadvertent trade-off began. Material security was exchanged for leisure time. Yet traditional agriculture inevitably ensured quiet times, when little work could be done, and fields had to be left fallow at least every few years.

"Dolce Far Niente (1904)" by John William Godward - Art Renewal Center – description. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Godward_-_Dolce_Far_Niente_(1904).jpg#/media/File:John_William_Godward_-_Dolce_Far_Niente_(1904).jpg
“John William Godward – Dolce Far Niente (1904)” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Paradoxically, it was the horror of the industrial age that led to a clearly defined concept of leisure time and recreation. Now, in the west, the majority of us at least have an inkling of what leisure is, while people in the developing world still slave to sustain our spoiled lifestyle. At the same time, within our society, there are groups of people who are unemployable, and have more idle time on their hands than they could possibly need. But in general, leisure to us, means time to do whatever you love doing. Technology, which promised and indeed delivered so much opportunity for leisure, has lately turned out to be the exact opposite. Omnipresent interconnectedness has enabled the colonisation of idle time. Even time waiting for a bus or a train can and will be put to good use. The company phone works as a modern ball and chain, ever anchoring us to or at least reminding us of duty. If the phones are not calling our attention towards our paid jobs, then we are allowing it to continually reminds us of filling up a void with experiencing and consuming, or being elsewhere. Idleness has become subversive. If you fail to do anything, you are not fully realising the potential to “make” something, to consume or to experience some extraordinary.

I often think of my grandparents. My grandmothers are in their eighties now, of course not as active as they used to be. My grandfathers have passed on. I can hardly remember a time my grandfathers and grandmothers were truly idle. They were always busying themselves with something. They had quiet rituals and mundane chores around the houses and gardens. All their activities and rest were governed by a blessed cadence that governed their life, according to season and necessity. My grandparents were always occupied with something, with the exception of the evening hours. Yet there was peace in their house. I find that peace hard to come by in a modern day household. We crave the clutter and permanent question marks in our head of books and opinions other than my own. This is of course our own doing, but I find breaking this habit hard, as the same restlessness is mirrored in the people that surround me. We seem to have plenty of leisure time, yet we hardly ever get round to doing the things we love most. Spending time with your children, your love, your pets, or puttering in the garden or walking the woods. In my case: doing some embroidery that has no other object than being pretty for pretty sake. Visiting those beloved grandmothers. Reading a book for the thirtieth time, letting the words wash over me like familiar friends. Ordinary stuff. These moments are rare, and becoming even more so.

The collective moments of downtime have slowly but surely wilted as well. The shops are open every day now, which is convenient since there is always someone working in an average household. Even holidays are not what they used to be. Do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being active and loving what you do. I do believe, though, there is a structural problem with always wanting to maximise and squeeze everything out of life. All that hustle and bustle does not take into account all this going back and forth has on our environment, whether it concerns paid work or leisure. The compulsion to be active sidelines the need for contemplation. As a society, we have lost track of the value of fallow time and space, which was once considered as a prerequisite for a good life. As fallow fields have now little or no place in mainstream agriculture, an idle mind is considered equally undesirable. Sleep is used to balance the budget, while a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things anyone can do for their health. I could think of many reasons why work and activity in general has established itself as the defining aspect of our culture. It has to do with past hardship, fear of scarcity and dutiful religion. But one of the reasons, it seems, is that an idle mind is useless to a capitalist system. Idle minds are no longer a human resource that is either producing or consuming. In that sense, indulging in empty time and space, refusing to run in the rat race at least some of the time, is a small act of resistance. It wordlessly ridicules those who define themselves solely by what they do.

A fallow field rarely lies fallow for long, just like an idle mind is almost immediately occupied with something else. New thoughts, new life germinates on black bare soil and empty minds. There is always the possibility of vice sprouting from too many idle hours. Enjoying time can easily become killing time. On healthy soil, though, soon other vegetation and pursuits will take over. The essential difference is that the new life consists of thoughts and seedlings that come into being effortlessly, and defy man-made structures and plans. They embody the distant wild, that lives on, in a dormant state, below our cultured minds. A novel, a painting, a garden or any other creative work of significant size can hardly be conceived of and nurtured within sparse stolen hours only. And if you are forced to make a living with something other than your heart’s desire, then it is a lot harder to hear the call of the world beyond, for your mind is often cluttered with anxious thoughts of duty.

I like to think more fallow fields and idle minds would do the world a world of goodness. Whether you are working or not this summer, I wish you all moments of true idleness. For in silence and stagnancy, we can hear the whispers of the Gods and the wailing of the world worn thin. Who knows what will start to grow in the quiet reception of a idle mind or a fallow field.