On Doing

magritteI don’t do very much.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned to forgive myself for this. Sometimes I feel I might even embrace myself as someone who abstains from doing things, but that nascent possibility is dutifully accosted by the effort it demands. Everything I see or hear, anything anyone ever tells me, is always pushing me to do the opposite of what I think I should be doing. There is no way that I will ever be able to do nothing, and yet deep down there is nothing I want more than to do nothing at all.

My obstacle is the world.

Despite any pretensions we might have as a species, life usually succeeds at getting us to admit that we, as individuals, are a part of what we call world. As a part of something which is only insofar as it is doing, or having done, or going to do, we should expect to be doing things. If we really did nothing, then we’d be nothing; and the world, being not-nothing, couldn’t include someone who is nothing.

I admit that doing nothing may sound boring at first blush, but it doesn’t necessarily involve abstaining from doing anything at all. For example, breathing ought to count as something. But breathing isn’t always particularly relevant, and neither are many other activities. I issue ‘relevant’ here not as the parcel of some cog-in-the-machine capitalist paranoia: being relevant is doing anything linking you to any agenda. If I want to be a painter and I take an art class, that’s very relevant of me.

Accepting this premise makes doing nothing seem elusive. I would go further. Doing nothing is nothing short of impossible. Achieving it for a lifetime is something I doubt even Buddhist monks could fathom. It’s challenging to make yourself irrelevant when having a self-image implies the opposite. The truth is that I have an agenda, and I’m nothing without it. But doing nothing seems like the sensible alternative to performing in the world’s newest song and dance. It’s the only show in town, and I’m nothing if not an actor.

For the intrepid, the most straightforward path to becoming approximately nothing lies in eliminating any connections you have to any sort of network of relevance. From a practical standpoint, this is hardly feasible. The first step to becoming precisely nothing would at the very least be to die, but then you wouldn’t be around to profit from it. The joy of irrelevance is in the magnanimity of nothingness. Nothingness has given everything up – it has nothing left in it.

On the other hand, reducing your overall relevance is not so difficult. The problem is that the world would rather you didn’t. Its progress depends on you, just as your standard of living depends on it. The world is progress, a mercurial network of relevance. Its brand doesn’t always make things better, it just makes things happen: it’s the value-blind impetus that keeps the news new. So it should come as no surprise to us that the world will ceaselessly present us with new things to make, do, see, hear, explore, buy, steal, and eat. But we can turn it down. Not every single time, but more often than is our custom. Our agendas don’t need to be as numerous or as grandiose as they might be right now. We probably won’t save the world. And I wonder whether the world really needs saving in the way we think it does. Maybe that’s just its underhanded way of enticing us into doing.

I’m not advocating for becoming apathetic, isolated, and lazy. Really, I’d settle for just lazy. Laziness is maligned, but it’s misunderstood. Authentically lazy people have discerned the importance of nothing. I’d be surprised if they were any happier than the most relevant among us; I’d just expect them to be more comfortable with the unhappiness sown through our common roots.

If you’re warming to the idea but you fear for your social existence, doing nothing can be a community event. Everybody already understands this, and teenagers best of all. This is why chilling is their priority. Stop doing; just chill.

My friends and I used to spend our chill time devising ways to cheat the rules condemning us to nothing. I believed then that gaining more freedom would make me happier. Instead, confusion and bewilderment are increasingly present facts of my freer life. Happiness is ever more oblique, a treacly little paradox. For a while I thought that this might be a sign of depression, but then I sobered from my drunken scientism. The more I do, the more unsatisfied I become – but I still want to do, always and presumably forever.

I guess I just realized that doing things takes from me. It never fills me up the way I expect it to.

I used to dream of travelling the world. I wanted it to saturate my essence. Now that I’m older, all I want is to do nothing in as many places as I can. I have no desire to skydive or to see every Rembrandt. I feel like I should want to do these things because people keep telling me that they are amazing, but I remain nonplussed. I drift to desolate places instead: deserts and large open seas, mountains and forests. The fewer the things there are to do, the better. ­­

I don’t want to be relevant in the Swiss Alps. I want to recline into their enormous irrelevance. I want their still-water lakes to reflect my own irrelevance, because beneath it all I have always suspected that I am irrelevant and I am beginning to accept this suspicion as truth. By irrelevant I don’t mean worthless or useless. I mean it literally. I might get myself caught up in all sorts of networks of relevance, just like everyone else does and has to. But relevant is not what I am deep down. Deep down I am nothing. And so I like to do nothing as much as possible.

—Phil Lagogiannis

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