observations and opinion
On the Discipline of Doing Nothing
In much of my country, the first week of August is quieter even than Christmas: with the first Monday being a stat holiday, people try to book the rest of the week off (the result is 9 days out of the office at the price of four vacation days). Hundreds of offices fall silent, the Inbox barrage ebbs and business, for many people, just comes to a halt.
My tradition has been to see this as “a good week to get things done,” hanging about the office, shifting paper around and poking into the unexplored regions of my email and to-do lists. But this year, circumstances conspired to make this an ideal week to go to our house in the country. And unlike every single other week of my life at the cottage, I didn’t bring any work.
This has proven to be a shock to people, particularly my spouse, who seeing me not working or phoning or emailing or generally stressing about it all, probably wonders if I have been secretly fired. Maybe she thinks I haven’t worked up the courage to tell her. But so far as I know, I have not been fired (of course I would be the last to know, that being how we do these things nowadays). No, I’m just “off.” I am available if needed but, the world having fallen into a sleepy hole this week, I don’t seem to be much needed.
So I am not busy and I am not worried about it. The work that must be done, is being done by others. I am left to spend quiet mornings tapping out things on my laptop, or discovering a tiny lake just up the mountain that I had never seen before, or helping my buddy with his boat. Or, as it turns out, nagging a teenager about…everything. She doesn’t seem to mind. Much.
The first night up here, after said teenager had collapsed into her bed, I got into the vacation spirit by indulging myself in a secret vice: re-watching a favourite movie. In this case, one I’ve only seen twice before, Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” I’m a sucker for the film: Lincoln is a major heroic figure for me, someone whom I admire and who as portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis is exceptionally likeable and wise. The movie itself is the rarest of things – a parliamentary procedural drama – recreating the eradication of slavery by constitutional amendment. And it’s funny. An old fashioned hagiography, “Lincoln” is a rich pleasure for someone as wonky as me.
Part of the magic of “Lincoln” is its re-creation of life in the 19th Century – working life, in particular. It is clear from the start that Lincoln works all the time, but moves “at a deliberate pace” as he describes it. He takes his time. He tells funny stories. He entertains long lines of petitioners seeking his intervention in minor local disputes. He sits and reads to his youngest boy in the afternoon, passing the time waiting for news from Capitol Hill. He enjoys himself as much as the most burdened man alive can allow.
The gentle, un-mechanized pace of work depicted in “Lincoln” is a window into an earlier time, and a jarring reminder of how weirdly inhuman our own working habits have become. Today, as individuals assume responsibilities, they are increasingly buried in demands – those whom they report to are more numerous and needy, those whom they serve are more powerful and insistent. The tools of our trade, in particular the phone, have latched onto our bodies like external organs – not so much an iron lung as an electronic bladder, constantly needing to be vented.
It has always been necessary for me to work and, with the exception of the cafeteria dishwasher gig I took one year to make ends meet, most jobs have delivered some enjoyment. Whether to fund second-hand record albums in grade school, or a boat that I still don’t really know how to drive, the money has been “the reason” to work, but the experience of work has itself had its own rewards. I count myself both lucky and reasonably wise, insofar as I have refused to endure an unpleasant job without at least squeezing a good story out of it (and a few bucks).
But this week, the quiet Inbox and the quiet world have given me a true pause, an island divorced from my usual mainland. Watching Abe Lincoln manage the Civil War, while bringing about the end of slavery, while raising a boy and managing a wildly difficult wife, you would expect to see people working in nerve-jarring frenzy. Yet they aren’t. They’re living in a time when communications were achingly slow, dependent on the speed of one’s feet or one’s horse, at best on the talents of a telegraph operator. Things took time and time, particularly patience and inactivity, were a key ingredient in success.
The moment that is most plain is when Lincoln, feeling pressured to invite southern peace negotiators to Washington, decides to telegraph an order that the Confederate delegates be brought to him. He doesn’t want to do it, knowing that if Congress sees a chance to buy peace by letting the South keep slavery, they will do it. Dictating the message, Lincoln pauses to jaw with the young telegraph operators.
Reminded of Euclid, Lincoln describes a lesson from that ancient mathematician: “things that are equal to the same thing, are equal to each other.” This idea hits him hard – you can see it – as his mind turns to slavery. You don’t hear his thoughts, but you can imagine them: two men equal in the sight of God, are equal to each other and any system of laws which makes one man dominant and the other subordinate, is unjust. Knowing that the arrival of the Confederate delegates will likely scuttle the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the President changes his mind (and the message).
Had Lincoln not paused, not reflected, not taken a moment to chat with the young soldiers working for him, Euclid (and his maxim) would not then have entered his head. Instead he could have fallen prey to pressure, risking the Thirteenth Amendment. It was a key moment for the abolitionist movement and Lincoln; stopping to think, he let some seemingly idle ruminations lead him to a better decision.
The Euclid moment in “Lincoln” illustrates the danger of instant communications: on the verge of transmitting a message by telegraph, it takes discipline not to react, not to respond, not to speak quickly and then perhaps live forever with the consequences. It takes the discipline of doing nothing. It takes the stuttering, shifting, unpredictable nature of the human mind to actually use the human mind optimally.
This illustrates a problem with how we work today: the machine drives the human pace. It began with mechanized cotton mills, was perfected on the Fordian assembly line and has weirdly, invaded our bodies and our brains with the perpetual hum, ding and buzz of our electronic devices, constantly jamming demands at us that must be answered NOW. We have not forced ourselves into factories; we have made ourselves into factories.
The typical complaint about this is that we are never relieved of the burden of work. That may be true, although for some of us it is not “the deal” to be frequently relieved of work. We have signed-up to be on duty most of the time. It is a rare and unusual thing for me to be off just as it may be for you. We don’t want to be off all that much – that’s not who we are.
Who we are (many of us) is someone who is ambitious, not just in terms of striving to succeed but in trying to do our work well. We want to be good, maybe great, at what we do. That is why we are so much in demand, I guess – others have a sense that we are better than the other guy they might call upon for help.
Part of their expectation is that we be responsive. Fair enough, but “responsiveness” or “service” as we have termed it in the professions, contains within it the seeds of destruction. It is simply not possible to really do one’s best, if one is constantly in a rush. Several weeks ago a very good doctor, substituting for my family doc, misdiagnosed me. It was an easy mistake, but one which resulted in my becoming more ill and then correctly self-diagnosing the problem (thank you Internet). My regular physician reached the same diagnosis and I am on the mend, hopefully.
It’s impossible to judge the erring physician harshly because she was doing what we all do: the best we can, in a stupid hurry, with limited information. In my own work (law) we see this every day: someone at a client decides an answer is urgently required; their subordinate promises it immediately and then pursues the lawyer. The lawyer collects what facts she can, does research and spins out the answer rapidly. If she doesn’t do that, she will get a complaint.
My concern about the incessant, mechanized and invasive electronic device is not that it interferes with my downtime, but that it interferes with my performance (and others’ performance). The demand for the answer or the product or the service “now!” makes our work worse. Instantaneous response diminishes the quality and inventiveness of what we do by making immediacy more valuable than wisdom. Care and craft are subordinated to delivery time. Yes, it is often necessary to be fast, but in being so, it may not always be possible to be great. Greatness takes time.
Few of us are waging wars or ending slavery, fortunately. But engaged even in our lesser tasks, it seems to me that we might do a better job if we were to stop, to breathe and to think. And sometimes, not to think. President Lincoln himself has been quoted as saying: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” He might also spend a few minutes looking at the tree and where it might land, before swinging.
Which reminds me, I’m supposed to go cut down some trees today. I’d better go sharpen the axe.
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Note to the Reader: regarding Mr. Lincoln’s quoted advice about tree chopping, I decided to investigate the accuracy of the quote and its attribution to the President. Call it sharpening my axe after wielding it. As it turns out, there is no recorded evidence of Abe Lincoln ever saying such a thing. But as I have argued before (Nelson Mandela and Pieces of the True Cross, April 2014) fidelity to the alleged speaker’s nature can be just as valuable as historical accuracy.