For the last several weeks, I’ve had company everywhere I go (which, for reasons that will soon become evident, has not been many places). Walking pneumonia. Sounding like a cross between an exotic, possibly sentient, plant and some sort of CDC PSA, it’s not very interesting. It’s the sort of illness where there’s not much to say or do about it. You’re just sick for a while. You have pneumonia in your lungs, for a while. You have little energy and little appetite. You have a low fever, on and off, for a while. You cough it out. There’s no cure or secret to it, as far as I can tell.
I keep thinking it’s over, but the reports of my restored health have been greatly exaggerated. It just keeps coming back in the form of unpleasant fevers after a few days of activity. This sends me back to slug mode, barely leaving the house and infrequently putting on real pants.
Now, slug mode and I are pretty good friends. If someone had to get a prolonged illness requiring isolation, I would probably volunteer for the slot. I got some practice for it in my previous bout with prolonged and incurable, but not life-threatening, illness in 2018. (This is beginning to feel like a speciality of mine).
But it’s also confronting my sense of what my time is for. As I wrote over a month ago, when I was unknowingly in the early stages of the pneumonia, doing “nothing” can feel like an affront to conversation. And life is made up of days, so I often get this Torschlusspanik (essentially, FOMO) about watching my life flit away, misspent. I look at the pile of things I’d like to accomplish with my time on Earth, and I realize with a bit of panic that I’d better get started.
How can you misspend your own life, though? How can you miss what’s meant for you?
And what, or who, is activity for?
I’m beginning to think more about the basics: enjoyment, and presence. In recent years, since I decided rather aggressively to start doing things, I’ve had moments of exaggerated intensity, especially on my writing projects. I’ve lost valuable hours of sleep to stay up and hit a target for which there is no external need. Discipline is one thing, but this mode of white-knuckle productivity is fairly unpleasant.
Contrast that unpleasant production with its twin: unpleasant leisure. I’m often guilty of getting mentally trapped between several potential activities during free time: should I sit down with that big book and a coffee? Should I go for a walk, or a run? Should I bake cookies? Should I call someone to catch up? Should I write a blog post, or a chapter of a book? Should I go to a museum, or for a drive out of the city? And often, the paralyzed answer is: none of these. Maybe I turn on the TV and watch something barely enjoyable until my eyes feel scratchy, or get stuck surfing a mossy backwater of the internet, waiting for myself to make a decision. Neither having fun, nor “producing” anything. Surely this, not true leisure, is how a life can be wasted, bit by bit.
During the most recent stretch of my pneumonic torpor, I read “How To Do Nothing,” by Jenny Odell. Highly recommended, wide-ranging and thought-provoking. It’s a lot broader than its subtitle, “Resisting the Attention Economy,” suggests. It’s not just tips for how to set digital boundaries and unplug a bit from social media. It’s an exploration of what it even means to be human, now or at any time.
For now, before I get too carried away, I just want to reflect on one chapter of the book: the first one, in which Odell introduces the problem. We live in a world that increasingly tells us that we are valuable to the precise extent that we are “productive.” But productive of what? There’s no time to consider the answer. Meanwhile, ironically, we struggle to be “productive” with one hand tied behind our back by our constant state of distraction, which is the profit-driving mechanism for one of the largest industries on the planet.
A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.Odell at xi.
Odell spends a lot of her time looking at trees, roses, and birds. She thinks about art. She notices people on the bus and on the street. She listens to the radio while she drives. She exists on purpose and in place.
This sounds idyllic, eminently desirable. But I notice I immediately resist the idea of doing this myself: it sounds to my scarcity-oriented mind like letting myself go. It sounds like a world in which I’d never accomplish anything. And, okay, yes, I can sign on to the idea that “productivity” as a virtue is a fool’s game. But there are many books I want to write. How can I live that life I want without doing more than nothing?
But then I remember: it’s about enjoyment, and presence. I’m probably not going to have a great time if I set out overly ambitious goals and then immediately rebel against them, then panic a half-hour before bedtime and force myself to rush through them all. Far better to find the joy in the task, and to live my days so that I have no need to rebel against myself. And if there is no joy in the task, perhaps it’s not my task.
Even now, me and my pneumonia are sitting comfortably on the couch writing these words with some music we quite like playing on the speaker, and tomorrow night’s dinner is bubbling on the stove. Not because we must, but because we may, and that’s a joy.
It’s about finding that middle ground, that fertile and vast territory between justifying my existence based on what I produce, and wasting my one wild and precious life by squandering my gifts and opportunities. Like Mary Oliver and her grasshopper, perhaps the goal is to become vividly alive and look gratefully at each other on a summer day. And let that be enough. Peaceful and plenty.