What Do We Really Mean When We Say We're Doing Nothing?
When anyone asks what I've been doing lately, I almost always say: "Nothing."
Of course, that's not literally true. Yesterday, I wrote two articles, drew a picture of a girl wearing a hazmat suit, walked five miles, cooked chilaquiles for the very first time, took an Advil, researched female pirates, watched Lady on a Train, cleaned the kitchen counters, heard someone describing his previous night's dream, picked mint, saw a squashed bumblebee in the street, bought cherries, listened to a friend's new song and cried in frustration when, after much trying, I couldn't make Hazmat Girl's hand look lifelike.
Did I do anything that counts? Is anything I do even worth mentioning?
The very meaning of "nothing" is so debatable.
When we say we are doing nothing, is it because we think our activities are of so little interest to our questioners as to be virtually nonexistent?
If so, do we say it out of anger—as in: "I've been playing Scrabble—which we both know you think is a waste of time"?
Or do we say it out of politeness, as in: "I've been diagramming rootworm larvae—but we both know you're not interested in entomology."
Or when we say we're doing nothing, do we mean that we ourselves consider our own activities worthless?
Or, when we say we're doing nothing, do we mean that our activities mean very much to us, yet they shame or embarrass us—so we dismiss, hide or disown them?
I often blame myself for spending too much time doing "nothing." I call myself passive and lazy. Eyeing my nearly empty calendar, I tell myself scathingly: You have too few interests and too little motivation.
Self-loathing has a way of making us devalue nearly everything we do, especially those things we find enjoyable—before we do them, while we're doing them and, perhaps most perniciously, afterwards.
Listening to music? Laughing? Chatting with friends? Playing with animals? Making food, crafts or art? Feeling love, hope or thankfulness? Spending ten minutes wondering what living in medieval Malta might be like?
"Oh, nothing. I haven't been doing anything at all."
But that's merely a deception, a sneaky trick. Whether we're performing surgery or picking mint or staring silently into space, we're always doing something —and we should honor our activities (and thus honor ourselves) by mindfully choosing to do them, consciously experiencing them, and even in small private ways marveling at those experiences, as in (seriously) "Yay! I can already feel my headache ebbing away!" and "This song sounds like summertime!" and "Wow! I wonder whether bumblebees ever ponder their own deaths?"
"When the moon lights the summit at night I sing/When the clouds turn warm I walk along the spring," wrote the 14th-century Buddhist hermit Shiwu: "Busy planting bamboo. .../Most of the time I smile."
As Shiwu and his fellow hermit-poets have always known: However anyone else might judge our chosen activities, and whether or not we ever choose to tell others about these activities, they should never mean "nothing" to us.
And yes, some of the most profound "somethings" can emerge from what looks to the outside world like "nothing."
Answering the classic what-have-you-been-doing-lately question with "nothing" cuts us off from our askers and ourselves. It's an insidious, cold, conversation-ending insult to them and to us. When you next hear yourself saying you're doing nothing, ponder: Am I, really?
If not, what then made me say I was?
And what does "nothing" mean to me?
And if I'm really doing nothing: Why?