Life in the age of COVID-19

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on April 20, 2020 # Lifestyle

Here I am, sitting at home with nothing to do, except trying to write this piece about sitting at home with nothing to do. Plus, I have a nasty head cold, which makes even thinking straight difficult. You can only sleep so much, darn the luck, or watch only so many breathless CNN “Breaking News” reports, or read online world COVID-19 statistics, or check your email hoping that it’s more than cancellation notices, or miracle ketone diet ads. Of course, there is that new, 1000-page Tudor novel you can dive into, but it’s hard to concentrate when the whole world is falling apart.

You are, in a word, idle, and if you grew up in a middle American Calvinist household like I did, idle is an unspoken four-letter word, meaning useless, lazy, and not invited to dinner. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” is tattooed on your frontal lobe. “‘Do something,’ you worthless troll!” your brain screams, “before God writes you off as unnecessary and gives you the virus!”

On the other hand, or so I am told, there is an art to doing nothing, a learnable skill set, apparently, if not a lifestyle. The Italians have a word for this -- “La Dolce Far Niente,” or “the sweetness of doing nothing.” You know, old Italian men sitting around the piazza, drinking wine and making obscene hand gestures to one another. The French are good at this, too. The Danes have their own form of do-nothingness, called “hygge,” meaning sitting around in sweatpants and just being cozy.

My own first instinct in a moment of idleness is to make a list of all the things I should be doing outside of “real work” to better my life. You’ve made the same list. “Exercise. Check. Meditate. Check. Learn to play the piano. Check. Call your mom. Later.” Those are all good things to do, for sure, but none of them fit the category of “nothing.” They are just better “should’s” than “finish quarterly revenue projections” or “check LinkedIn for better job.”

My second instinct is to look up “doing nothing” on Google. Seems pathetic, right, that I can’t do nothing without someone online telling me how to do nothing. But it doesn’t take long to research and there are a hundred entries. I’ll only refer to one good one from the New York Times from May of 2019. It had the most arresting title: “Stop. Just Stop. And Learn How to Do Absolutely Nothing.”

The article is built around another European catchword, this one from the Dutch. The word is “niksen.” The idea of “niksen” “is to take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities like gazing out a window or sitting motionless.” I know, your mom called that frittering your life away. The Dutch would probably say, in a polite way, that your mom was full of baloney, or whatever lunch meat is popular over there.

Another source explains that “doing nothing is actually an event in and of itself.” It is not just negative time between focused and “important” tasks like doing push-ups or watching Sports Center.

The irony of all of this is that, according to “niksen” experts, a period of total, dedicated idleness can be incredibly productive! When your mind is free of on-demand tasks or the next list of worries, creative ideas tend to appear out of nowhere. Or your neck relaxes, your shoulders drop, and the solution to a difficult problem just effortlessly occurs. Or your brain starts singing “What A Day for A Daydream” by the Lovin’ Spoonfuls. Lord only knows what else is rolling around in there.

“Nothing” is clearly not an easy thing to do. You have been programmed your whole life to do stuff. It’s your mantra: “I do stuff, therefore I am.” I’m just a beginner here at the art of “niksen” and I can attest that it feels uncomfortable, almost silly, in the early stages. You have to ease into it.

Try this: the next time you are sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting to be called in, don’t check your iPhone for email or thumb through some celebrity rag or plan the dinner menu. Just sit there. Be idle. Be very idle.

Over time, you may learn to really like it and stop working altogether because it cuts into your “niksen/hygge/far-niente time”. “Niksening” may become so addictive that you wake up one day, broke and homeless, and are inspired to write a piece for the New York Times called “Get Off Your Tail, Pal! Idleness Can Ruin Your Life!” Your mom will be so proud.

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.


For more resources on the coronavirus, visit the Reeve Foundation COVID-19 Information Center.