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ARTSPEAK: The Importance Of Being Idle

Updated July 30, 2017

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When my daughter was about three or four, and we grown-ups were busy talking, she would say in great frustration, “Stop, I can’t hear my voice.” She was referring to her inner voice, her thinking process. Of course conversely she would also say in despair “I can’t stop my thinking!” We all need those moments of silence and receptivity to cultivate our inner thoughts.

Childhood used to be a time of playing in the neighbourhood with friends, creating imaginative scenarios, flying kites, playing pithu or gilli danda and sorting out disagreements. Then school got to its serious stage and slowly we were expected to be responsible and think of our possible future careers and lives. Earning a living was important but there was always time to sit with the family or go on outings. People were not less ambitious then. Almost all our most valuable inventions were created before the infamous ’80s — when the yuppies (young upwardly mobile professionals) defined success as a big bank balance and the power that comes with business success. Clocking in maximum number of work hours to impress the boss has taken over from the notion of productive hours.

While the determined professional will balance work and family, there is little time to loaf around. It’s a word that has come to have a negative connotation, but as Lin Yutang writes in his influential essay The Importance of Living that “loafing is considered to be productive, not unproductive, because it is the foundations on which culture, art and wisdom are produced and which places more importance on being than on doing or possessing.”

These conclusions are also those of Bertrand Russell in his essay In Praise of Idleness, and Henry David Thoreau’s A Lament against Incessant Business, as well as Einstein who said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.”

The word for leisure in Greek is ‘skole’ from which is derived the English word ‘school’ — a place where we educate and teach. We are more used to thinking of idleness as the opposite of education, the opposite of employment. But it is mindfully cultivated idleness that created space for epic poems, the scholarship of medieval monasteries as Shakespeare’s plays, Jane Austen’s novels and Ghalib’s ghazals.

According to Lin Yutang, “From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise. The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully. We must not allow the art of living to degenerate into the mere business of living.”

The word for leisure in Greek is ‘skole’ from which is derived the English word ‘school’ — a place where we educate and teach. We are more used to thinking of idleness as the opposite of education, the opposite of employment. But it is mindfully cultivated idleness that created space for epic poems, the scholarship of medieval monasteries as Shakespeare’s plays, Jane Austen’s novels and Ghalib’s ghazals. It gave us inspiring actors, great musicians and artists.

Leisure is all too often equated with entertainment, and has become a business, rather than an opportunity for reflection and calm. Sugata Mitra, the renowned educationist, traces the production of “identical people for a machine that no longer exists” to the education system of the British Empire that aimed to create replaceable bureaucrats.

Showing honour to what is valued is always unfolded slowly: Qirat recitation of the Quran, the measured steps of a funeral procession, a long driveway up to a stately home, and the many steps up to courts of justice.

Carlo Petrini’s protest against fast food at the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome in 1986 inspired the slow food movement that has spread to many countries and to a more generalised ‘Slow Movement’ with activities from farming to art.

What is under the microscope is the notion of Time itself. Both in Europe and Japan, punctuality is important but the West speaks of time rushing by while for the Japanese it is something to be savoured and not wasted. In Pakistan where the same word, ‘kal’ is used for yesterday and tomorrow, time is no longer an objective truth but becomes defined by the speaker’s intended meaning. Puzzling as that is in a world where races are won by milliseconds, it has the implied meaning that time is controlled by us rather than we enslaved by time.

Unfortunately, life in Pakistan has become so harrowed that we feel unable to even think of leisure except in snatched moments seen as escape from the grimy business of politics, economic hardships and a complete lack of a nurturing environment. We are tossed around in the jaws of demanding world pressures that want us to submit to their way of life. Culture becomes something our elders enjoyed in their youth. But it is precisely at times like this that we need to reflect and make time for ourselves.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 30th, 2017