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Idleness

All men's miseries derive from
not being able to sit quiet in a room alone.

BLAISE PASCAL





I'm always terrified when our gardener comes to the house.

He comes over to tend to our grass and plants every other fortnight or more frequently in the rainy season. Lean, with sun-baked skin and around my age, he spends most of the morning until early afternoon mowing the grass, trimming the plants, uprooting the weeds, and--as a bonus--even applies his artistry to some bushes by shaping them into squares, circles and whatever yet-to-be-named figure he invented on that given day. His is no easy job; he walks a good three kilometers from the gate of the village in order to get to our house by eight; he has to bend his back for the most part or squat and double up as he cuts away with the heavy garden trimmers; and all this during the time when the sun is at its most unforgiving height. All he has is a plastic pitcher of lukewarm water our good maid brings to him and a few sticks of cigarettes for a break (though I haven't seen him take one).

So why did I say I become anxious when he arrives?

Because by around noon I make my grand entrance (or exit?) into the porch before which he works so that I could do my morning ritual of taking my coffee, reading the papers, and smoking my cigarettes. Still yawning and shaking out the morning (noon?) cobwebs, I am dressed in what I had slept in, my hair's a mess and I have yet to brush my teeth or more so take a bath. I greet him, ask him how he is, comment on how the grass grew faster this time around, flatter him with the new shape of the shrub he came up with that day, and, after all that necessary talk is done, bury my face in the newspaper, sip on my scalding hot Starbucks coffee and finish my Marlboro reds as fast as I can. Why the hurry, you ask? Because I am so ashamed.

Here was a man sweating underneath the sun while my body's still cold from the air conditioner. Here was a man making an honest living while I was at home on a working day. Here was a man creating shrub art while I was thinking of what food I will have delivered. Here was a man while I was a child.

It's been a good year since I had lost my job. And since then, the gardener has been seeing me doing my morning/noon ritual every time he comes. I wonder what he thinks about me. Does he pity me or envy me? Does he resent my leisure or dream about it too? "Walang ginagawa," (he does nothing). "Swerte naman" (he's lucky). "Mayaman kasi ang magulang" (because he has rich parents). Or, what I dread the most, "Sayang" (a shame, a loss).

I have no way of really finding out what he thinks about me and I really do not want to know. But what I cannot deny is what he sees: an unemployed rich kid in a huge white house who idles away the time. And that is not merely what he sees; that is also the truth--in the sense that those words actually depict me. I am idle. I am neither proud of it but nor am I embarrassed about it. It is, well, just true. But it depends on how you take being idle means.

The word comes from the Old English idel which means "empty," "void" or "useless." These meanings are still relevant to how we still use the word: generally, to be idle means not to be doing anything, not working, being inactive; to pass away the time; being meaningless or having no worth as used in "idle talk" or "idle threats"; being vain as used in "idle pleasures"; and so on and so forth. It does not take a very smart man to sense that idleness is not only something to be avoided but also something to be condemned like an evil--hence the cliche that goes "idleness is the devil's workshop."

All this is well and good. Hey, it could even be reduced to an equation which reads: doing something : good :: not doing anything : bad. We first learned this rule from our parents, then it was made into a law in school, and finally a death sentence in the meritocracy of work. Curiously, when we are introduced to people, we do not ask "Who are you?" but "What do you do?" Man is the homo faber; and to be unable to work or act, as the logic goes, is to be less of a man--and perhaps nearer to the animal, e.g., a sloth. No man ever made history by being a good idler. And perhaps no one ever will. But only if you take idleness to mean as "not doing anything."

The ancient Chinese philosophers had a different word for idleness and it was wu wei. And not only was it a different word (obviously it is a Chinese word) but it was also a different experience of the same phenomenon as idleness. Instead of taking it to mean as "not doing anything," wu wei meant "doing nothing." This is not merely a play of words; something is essential to the difference between the seemingly identical meaning between idleness and wu wei. If, as we consign, idleness is not doing anything, wu wei is doing nothing; the point being there is still an activity present in wu wei even if it is an activity which looks like, smells like and produces nothing or not a thing. Idleness is privation of action while wu wei is action of privation. But my dear wise man, you shall say, they look the same. True. And our gardener would attest to this. Yet there is a world of a difference. For me at least.

It takes a lot of work to do nothing, you know. It can even be as tiring as running a mile or teaching the whole day (and that is why I take a nap in the afternoon). It's a talent not everyone can do. Notice the man in the restaurant who, while waiting for his date by his lonesome, has ordered ahead for some appetizers, is constantly calling or text messaging someone on his cellular phone, or is asking the waiter for the newspaper or magazines to blindly skim through. It takes familiarity with yourself if you are to do nothing precisely because in not doing anything you are being with your good old friend--your self. Lao Tzu said: "The way to use life is to do nothing through acting, the way to use life is to do everything through being." Doing nothing clears the space from which being, i.e., my true self, can emerge.

Not too many people are comfortable with being alone; they do not want to be caught being a "loner." But deeper than that superficial worry is the fear of facing your self without having something to do as an excuse. And so we hide from mirrors, fill our days with work and crowd ourselves with people so that we never have the chance to be with this alien or impostor. Yet for those who are comfortable with themselves, they do not fret being called a loner. "Our language," says Paul Tillich, "has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone." There are those who cannot stand the pain of being alone and so they need to do something. Then are those who want to bask in the lightness of being alone and so they do nothing.

Idleness is not yet solitude but is the necessary condition for solitude's act of doing nothing. Ironically, you have to stop doing anything before you can do nothing. This does not make sense but I know that some will understand. I do not expect the gardener to do so; not because I think lowly of him or anything judgmental like that. But perhaps nobody can really understand if you are on the outside (in the garden) looking in (-to the house). What the gardener does no see, because I do not show him, is that after I enter the house and station myself in the devil's workshop I am busy doing all sorts of no things: thinking, reading and writing.

And what he does not know is that the young unemployed man of the big white house is slowly glowing in the glory of his solitude just like the grass that quietly grows in his absence.



"Winter Grass" by Troy from www.ideatype.com

Comments

  1. hi! i read your essay in the phil star. very, very inspiring. =)

    ReplyDelete

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