Coming to a Standstill

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on January 27, 2022 # Lifestyle

Journal and coffeI know that post-Christmas is the time of year when many people temporarily lose their bearings, but at some point a few days back, my life came to a complete standstill. It was a strange feeling, a weird combination of helplessness and free-floating. There was nothing I immediately had to do – no “to do” list – and nothing I felt compelled or inspired to do. It was raining outside so I couldn’t wheel around the block, always an escape. Oh, yeah, there’s a pandemic raging outside, too, so no trips to the mall or the like. Physically, my left arm was recovering from a combination of wrist and elbow surgery and was still weak a month after the operation. Ten minutes of vigorous exercise and it ached. One bad arm plus two inert legs invite standing/sitting still.

Paralysis has a built-in bias toward stasis or inactivity. At least in my case, the bed is the one place where I don’t feel paralyzed. And, contrary to all the pepped-up “age is only number” hype from TV pitchmen and Betty White fans, old age bends toward slowing down, too. Nevertheless, my furtive brain rarely stops ruminating or hypothesizing or scheming. It’s always up to something. Now, it was up to nothing.

Having no demands on your time or energy, compulsory or creative, is a blessing and a curse. If, like many of us, you were imbued at age five with the notion that you should always be doing something, being useful and productive, sitting still makes you antsy. “Up and doing,” my grandmother used to preach. The dreaded Protestant Ethic, I now realize, is also the unspoken Paralysis Ethic. The more disabled you are, the more you have to prove to the world, and yourself, that you are twice as abled and productive and capable as the average schmo. Inspiration porn or not, every media story about disability is a heroic story, achieving something against “incredible odds.” It’s exhausting.

There is an opposing point of view. In words of Kurt Vonnegut, “We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you different!” Oh, if only the case! This, by the way, from a workaholic who published 14 novels, three books of short stories, five plays, five works of non-fiction, and loved to hear himself pontificate at any public forum in earshot. Farting around as a lifestyle is easier said than done, I guess.

On the plus side: an empty head is a clear head. Great, I now have an empty, clear head, along with a body that’s at a standstill and getting more used to it by the moment – what now? It’s obvious. I should embrace my inner torpor and learn the Dutch art of “niksen,” which means, doing nothing. It will enhance your life, they say. Do anything you want, I guess, as long as it is strictly without purpose or value. If you think it is a waste of time, it is! It’s just wasting time without being bothered or defensive about it, especially to yourself. Unless you have serious responsibilities like raising children or fighting forest fires, no one really cares if you do nothing or not. If someone is taking notes on your behavior, try to avoid them. Unfortunately, those people often live in your head and have been lodged there for decades. Maybe Dutch elders aren’t such taskmasters.

Forget the Paralysis Ethic and give this a try. It’s tough stuff. If you really dedicate yourself to useless activity – watching leaves fall off a tree, say – you are fighting against every impulse you have honed to perfection. We are all strivers – even the people writing books about niksen dream of a bestseller or being the keynote speaker at the Niksen World Conference.

The closest thing I instinctively do that approaches nothingness is watching college football games. The amount of brainpower this consumes is probably too small to measure. Now, assuming this is truly niksen in action, I’m still waiting for the big payoff. Every gung-ho niksen promoter raves about the astounding benefits. Stress reduction! A stronger immune system! Creative breakthroughs! All of that may be happening as I sit through another game, wondering, around the third quarter, why I am letting my life waste away like this.

If so, maybe I need to watch more games to get all that absolute purposelessness has to offer. In fact, I think there’s another game on right now.

Excuse me, I have a lot more nothing to do.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.