Idleness Essay

Essay I wrote for my Advanced Composition class. Can’t remember the grade I received.

Advanced Composition – Essay IV

March 26, 2006

What is Idleness?

Let’s suppose that during a given  period of time a person did nothing,  nothing at all. That person did not engage in any work related or recreational activity any kind. How would this period of time be defined? Would it be defined as idle time or as wasted time? Or could it even be described as a necessary respite from life’s endless occupations? In his essay, ‘In Praise of Idleness’, the Welsh philosopher Bertrand Russell may have provided the answer. In this essay Russell makes the argument that people are working too much. People should spend more time being idle, Russell writes. Russell thinks people should work less and instead pursue those things that provide them with personal fulfillment. In Russell’s ideal world  people would only work long enough so that they could support themselves. Working any longer than that would be counter productive. It would both infringe on someone else’s ability to support themselves and also limit the amount of time for the pursuit personal enrichment. Ideally society’s  necessary work is portioned off equally among its citizens. Everybody has an equal amount of time to work, and everybody has an equal amount of time free from work. And what they do with their  free time is their decision. 

The term idleness appears to have a clear meaning. It suggests people sitting around and getting nothing accomplished. At one time I worked in a mill manufacturing industrial baking pans. This mill depended on its sheet metall suppliers being on time with their deliveries. If they were late, me and the other workers sat were unable to operate the plant’s machinery — we were idled. Something that is idle is something that is not moving. That’s the standard definition of  idleness. This definition of  idle contrasts with Russell’s idea that free time should be spent in non-work related pursuits. I don’t disagree with Russell in theory – people are working too much. And that being overworked leads people away from  happiness and contentment. I do, however,  disagree with Russell’s idea of what constitutes idleness. To explore our differing viewpoints I will use a recent day in my life.

This past Tuesday I found myself in a rare and enviable position – a day free from obligations. I didn’t have to work, I didn’t have to attend class. I had no appointments, I had no dates –  I was a free man. Arriving home the night before I thought of things to do on this holiday. Cleaning my house was an option, as was doing laundry. I could attend a movie, go out to lunch, visit my parents. Or, even, work on the mounting backlog of reading and writing assignments that are haunting me like the unseen but felt presence stalking the lone hiker through a quiet and deserted forest.

I was an artist with a blank canvas. I could do anything I wanted. So let’s look at what I did do. Even with no important reason for awakening early, the alarm was still set for 6:00am. However, I did not go to bed early. Instead I watched movies and played on the computer until very late. This had the effect of making me too tired to get up when the alarm rang. So, after sleeping for an extra couple of hours,  I got out of bed. Still half-asleep, I went to the gym for a workout. Upon returning home I took the dog for a walk. Then I wasted some time on the computer, started doing the laundry and planned my day. My mother called and proposed a road trip. That killed a couple of hours but accomplished little: I sat on my brother’s couch and listened to my mother clean his kitchen. After that it was several more hours wasted on the computer. A trip to the bookstore was disqualified: I had more books than I needed and I had recently purchased the latest issues of the favored magazines. None of the latest movies were worth seeing so going to a show was ruled out. It was now starting to get dark – if I was going out it was time to decide. This decision was put off  as the dog got some more exercise. Now it actually was dark. The haunting specter of unfinished homework, not so carefully hidden away in the back of my mind, returned with greater force. But with so much of it to do where does one even begin?

Well I’ll tell you. I spent some more time on the computer and then watched television. Nothing worth watching is on Tuesday nights and I thought of the similarities between television and the internet. With so much of its own product to offer hours are easily lost merely trying to find something worthwhile. But the emptiness of television and the internet are off the point. It is now late and with an early wake-up on Wednesday I went to bed.

Now to get to the point. I just had an entire day to myself. A day I specifically arranged to catch-up on household chores and to have time to exercise my schoolwork demons. So what did I do? Plenty, and at the same time nothing. Plainly speaking I did plenty of nothing. Hours were wasted looking into electronic screens and of course there was the trip to my brother’s house. How did I feel about this? Well, terrible. And angry. The reading assignments had not read themselves and the dirty clothes didn’t wash themselves either. Could I define this day as a recharging day? Did this day clear my mind of accumulated stress and prepare it for the busy weeks ahead? Or was it a wasted day? Had I followed through with my plans, my workload over the next several weeks would be lightened.  But I didn’t do that. In my mind I was idle. This is what idle means to me– doing nothing.

How would my day fit into Russell’s idea of idleness? Well I didn’t work. (Meaning I didn’t go to my placement of employment and perform the tasks I was hired to do.) Neither did I do the things I do for enjoyment. I didn’t go to a movie. I didn’t read. I didn’t draw. I didn’t play my guitar. So if I didn’t work and didn’t engage in a pleasurable activity what is called what I did? Leisure is an option. It was my leisure time, and I was leisurely with my time. But I was also unproductive. Adding to the misery is how I felt about it. As I said, upon wakening the next day I was unhappy at being no further along than I was two days prior. In fact, I had to scramble to get the unfinished business, well,  finished. And after this mad flurry of activity I was actually quite pleased with myself. I had accomplished things. And my only payment was a feeling of personal satisfaction.

In my mind this is how work is defined, accomplishing something. Just getting something done. Doing it doesn’t have to be fun, nor does it have to be drudgery. But starting a task and seeing it through to some level of completeness is work to me.  Clean, folded clothes in the dresser drawer; a finished drawing or painting; a refrigerator filled with new groceries. Monetary compensation doesn’t have to be a part of it but some form of reward usually is usually associated with work. No one gets paid for doing these things for themselves, but there is work involved. The reward comes from knowing that clean clothes and fresh food are available whenever they are needed.

It is there that Russell and I part. Russell defines work as either moving matter from one place to another, or the overseeing of someone else moving matter from one place to another. In my mind this definition is too narrow. If a person helps a friend move their furniture would that be considered work? Certainly this is moving matter from one place to another. And if the friend is not able to move it themselves but does offer directions, isn’t that also work? I moved some heavy couches for people and have not been paid for it. Should I consider it working even though I feel I am doing a friend a favor? Does volunteer work count as work? At one time I help an educational organization build a wooden walkway. This entailed carrying large planks and then hammering them together. A pretty heavy work load for someone who isn’t, by Russell’s definition, working. Because what is also a part of Russell’s definition or work is getting paid. Neither myself nor any of the other volunteers were paid for the work we did. We did receive a measure of thanks for it, which is type of payment, and when the task was accomplished we all felt pride, which is another non-monetary form of payment.

I believe Russell would not consider the above work being it was something I did for personal enrichment and also to help others. That would meet Russell’s standard for idleness. In his essay he writes that time free from work responsibilities could be, even should be, used to pursue some sort of passion a person possesses. Russell says a painter could paint without worrying how to feed himself. A writer would have the time to sit and write works of great importance without having the same worry as the painter. Of course writing and painting are not easy endeavors, as anyone who has attempted either can attest to. But after several hours of uncompensated, intensely spent idleness those writers and painters have something concrete to show for their “idleness” – the finished novel or completed painting. In my system of idleness neither of those things would exist. Russell calls it idleness, I call it work.

I have one final example. For a children’s literature class I had to write and illustrate a children’s book. The format was open. We could draw our own pictures, use photographs, have more text than illustrations, have more illustrations than text. The story I chose to tell was illustration intensive. So much so that the illustrations could stand alone without the text. As I got into the book I began to regret the decision to make the book so reliant on illustrations. The drawings, crude as they were, took so much time to complete that I worried the story would have to be shortened in order for me to finish on time – something I did not want to do. But I put the work in and finished the story in the desired format. I can  emphatically say I consider the construction of this book to be work. Yet my only payments were the high grade I received on the assignment and a feeling of satisfaction so intense I surprised myself. For the time I spent working on the book I was both “idle” and “working”. And I was paid for my idle working, not in Russell’s way but my own. 

In one example I met my definition of idleness by wasting a day away only to regret it later. In another example I put in a full day of hard physical labor, meeting Russell’s definition of work, I wasn’t paid but I was glad I did it. In the third example I didn’t labor physically and I was engaged in an activity in which I enjoyed, but I can’t say it was an easy time – the creation process felt like work to me. To Russell this would be considered idleness. So which way is better? To spend a day accomplishing nothing and regretting it later or spend the day “working” on something that is both fun and enriching? The answer is clear – spend the day “working” and at the end of it have something to show for your labors. Marmee March would agree – just don’t tell Bertrand Russell you were working.

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