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Work • Meaning

The Dangers of Having Too Little To Do

For most of our lives, we’re hard at work: we’re up till midnight in the library studying for a degree, we’re learning a trade, building a business, writing a book. We have hardly a moment to ourselves. We don’t even ask whether we are fulfilled, it’s simply obvious that this is the bit that has to hurt. We fall asleep counting the weeks until the end.

And then, finally, one day, slightly unexpectedly, the end arrives. Through slow and steady toil, we have achieved what we had been seeking for years: the book is done, the business is sold, the degree certificate is on the wall. People around us cheer and lay on a party; we might even take a holiday.

And that is when, for those of us in the melancholy camp, a supreme unease is liable to descend. The beach is beautiful, the sky is flawless, there is a scent of lemon in the air from the orchard. We have nothing unpleasant to do. We can read, loll, play and dawdle. Why then are we so flat, disoriented and perhaps slightly tearful? Why are we so scared?

The mind works in deceptive ways. In order to generate the momentum required to induce us to finish any task, this mind pretends that once the work is done, it will finally be content, it will accept reality as it is. It will cease its restless, persecutory questions, it won’t throw up random unease or guilty supposions. It will be on our side.

But whether by intent or coincidence, our mind isn’t in any way well suited to honouring such promises. It turns out to be vehemently opposed to, and endangered by, states of calm and relaxation. It can manage them, at best, for a day or so. And then, with cold rigour, it will be on its way again with worries and questions. It will ask us once more to account for ourselves, to ask what the point of us is, to doubt whether we are worthy or decent, to question what right we have to be.

Once hard work ends, there is nothing to stop our melancholy minds from leading us to the edge of an abyss we had been able to resist so long as our heads were down. We start to feel that no achievement will ever in fact be enough, that nothing we do can last or make a difference, that little is as good as it should be, that we are tainted by a primordial guilt at being alive and a sense of not having paid our dues, that others around us are far more noble and able than we will ever be, that the blue sky is oppressive and frightening in its innocence – and that ‘doing nothing’ is the hardest thing we have ever attempted to do.

It is as though deep down, the melancholy mind knows that the ultimate fate of the planet is to be absorbed by the sun in seven and a half billion years and that everything is therefore vain and futile against a cosmological sense of time and space. We know that we are puny and irrelevant apparitions; we haven’t been so much busy as protected from despair by the use of deadlines, punishing schedules, work trips and late night conference calls. A grossly inflated local sense of importance spared us a recognition of cosmic futility. But now, with the achievement secured, there is no defence left against the might of existential terror. It is just us and, in the firmament above, the light of a billion billion dying stars. There are no more 8.30am meetings, no more revision notes, no more chapter deadlines to distract us from our metaphysical irrelevance. 

We should be kinder on ourselves. Rather than putting ourselves through the infinitely demanding process of idling (as though a nervous, adrenaline filled creature like homo sapiens could ever pull off such an implausible feat), we should be self-compassionate enough to keep setting ourselves one slightly irrelevant but well camouflaged challenge after another – and do our very best to pretend that these matter inordinately and that there should be no sizeable gaps between them. 

Our work exists to protect us from a brutal sense of despair and angst. We should make sure we never stop having tasks to do – and never make that most reckless of all moves, ‘retire’ or embark on that next most reckless step, taking a long holiday.

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