In Praise of Nothing
'How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterward.'
In honour of the summer holidays, this week we're celebrating the fine art of doing nothing.
Friday, August 15 is Relaxation Day in the United States, a reminder to slow down and smell the roses. This is a bit worrying to managers who are convinced their employees goof off too much on the job as is. They're wrong, though. According to the latest statistics, Americans are the most overworked people in the world. Not only do we not smell the roses, we zip by so fast we don't even notice they're there.
The Japanese are known for dying on the job. They even have a word for it: 'karoshi', or 'death from overwork'. The numbers have gradually been increasing since 1987, when the Japanese government first recognized the phenomenon. But recently we Americans have overtaken the Japanese in the rat race. This isn't something to be proud of.
Today in the United States, some 80 percent of men and 62 percent of women work more than 40 hours a week, and almost 40 percent of Americans now work more than 50 hours a week1. Not only do Americans work more hours per week, we don't 'do' vacation very well. For one thing, we don't have legal guarantees of vacation time. Second, our vacations average 8.1 days after a year on the job and only 10.2 days after three years2. We get less vacation than workers in any other industrialized nation, including China. And a quarter of us don't even take the vacation time we're given. Those who do take vacations often drag along their cell phones, pagers, or other electronic leashes that tether them to their offices.
It's a fine mess we've gotten ourselves into.
'Summertime and the living is easy
Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high'
'Summertime' from Porgy and Bess3
We pride ourselves on our 60-hour work weeks and our ability to get by on 4 or 5 hours of sleep per night. And our business practices share in the blame. Unlike the Japanese who are often guaranteed lifetime employment, we get tossed out on our ears with any downward twitch of the economy, and the survivors are expected to pick up the slack. In such an atmosphere, many workers are hesitant to leave the office for long periods of time lest their jobs disappear in their absence.
Well, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee, people. Chill, man. Knock it off. Cease and desist. Stop it this minute. You're working yourselves into coronaries. Fortunately there are some signs of sanity around here. Alongside the march to karoshi, there is a growing movement toward finding one's bliss in the slow lane. Known as Voluntary Simplicity, Sustainable Living and the like, it's an attempt to have a satisfying life without either living under a bridge or consuming every resource in your path. 'Less is more' is the movement's mantra: work less, spend less, have more time for the things that are important. Naturally there are Web sites devoted to the movement:
- Pioneer Thinking
- The Simple Living Network
- Simplicity Resource Guide
- The Center for a New American Dream
- Real Simple Magazine
So three cheers for doing nothing. Unfortunately many of us have forgotten how to go about it.
We'll get no help from our friends the physicists (you knew I'd get around to physics eventually). They tell us there's no such thing as 'nothing'. This revelation is one of the implications of quantum mechanics, which doesn't refer to grease monkeys who work on Volkswagen Quantums, but instead is the branch of physics that describes how things work at the atomic level. Among other things, quantum mechanics tells us that there are indeed umpty-willion universes made up of many dimensions, that time does not run forward and backward equally, and that particles can pop out of nowhere, hit an atom and alter some of its characteristics, then disappear back into nowhere, like some cosmic hit-and-run.
You don't believe it either, do you? Well, you're in good company: Albert Einstein famously observed that 'God does not play at dice.' Subsequent research, though, strongly suggests that not only does God play at dice, He appears to be something of a compulsive gambler Who, according to Stephen Hawking, often throws the dice where we can't see them.
In the Hyperion and Endymion novels, writer Dan Simmons calls it 'the void that binds', this nothing out of which stuff erupts and then disappears. It's the underlying and unifying structure of the universe: creative, random, and (some believe) vital and sentient. It's the source of quantum weirdness as well as the source of all possibility. Without it, this baffling ol' world of ours wouldn't exist.
'I got plenty of nothin', and nothin's plenty for me.'
'I Got Plenty of Nothin', Porgy and Bess
Do you get the feeling that the universe is playing games with us?
There's a lesson here (she says, tongue firmly in cheek); it turns out that the most important subject at school is recess. There is no higher calling than the study of nothing, and that's why we need vacations. When you do nothing, you notice things: the slant of a new country's sunlight, an odd music, a different dance, a language whose unfamiliarity turns every word into poetry. It's the emotional equivalent of the quantum soup. Gifts from the universe - peace and serenity, joy and grace - pop out of nowhere, smack us upside the head and disappear, leaving us changed for the better. Pay attention, they say - this is your life. Getting a good grade at recess is getting a good grade at life.
Class dismissed. Go play.