In Defense of Nothing

I recently read that there are 86,400 seconds in a day. The message accompanying that fact was a timeless one (pun only partially intended); we can’t stash those seconds away for later use like squirrels storing acorns for the winter. Once today’s allotment has expired, they’re gone. We can’t reclaim them. So, we should put each one to good use.

I heartily endorse the spirit of that advice, but I want to take a moment – not sure yet how many seconds – to unpack the idea of good use. I think sometimes we confuse good use with activity and vice versa. If we’re not actively checking off an item on our personal bucket lists, or envisioning the next one, we feel the guilty tension of those precious seconds slipping from our grasp. The pressure to do – something, anything – infects our personal lives and even our parenting styles. As a parent, I was an active pusher of the flurry of soccer and baseball and dance and acting lessons, camps, and clubs on top of the regular school days and their attendant burden of homework. What about time to simply take a deep breath, to just … be!

We don’t have to be in constant motion, scurrying from one activity to the next to use our time constructively. Sometimes spending precious seconds doing what appears to be nothing special can be valuable and even vital. One of the best uses of my seconds is in the savoring of my morning coffee. This very morning I luxuriated in the aroma, taste and warmth of two cups of coffee for at least 1,800 seconds. To an objective outside observer, I was doing nothing, a complete waste of time. But those seconds weren’t wasted. The meditative solitude I purchased with them was worth every single one. To borrow phrasings in Seasons of Love, from the musical Rent, we can measure life in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, and yes, in cups of coffee too.

I’m not advocating doing nothing with each of the 86,400 seconds in every day, or the more than 31 million in every year. I am, by nature and nurture, a doer too. In the roughly 15 months since I retired I have traveled to Copenhagen and San Diego, gone on a Caribbean cruise, skied resorts near Lake Tahoe, ridden my motorcycle at rallies in Sturgis and Laconia, rafted the Gauley River, attended Alabama’s football National Championship win in the Mercedes Dome, Atlanta, and of course, visited my children in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. I type this list, not as a boast, but to authenticate my credentials as a legitimate bucket list box checker.

But the value of our gifted seconds is not our action or inaction, per se. It’s in how we appreciate the time, how we experience it and how it makes us feel. What does it do for our minds and souls? The value of the Gauley River trip was not in being able to check off that bucket list item but in experiencing the rising fear followed by hilarity of relief entering and escaping each of its Class V rapids. Similarly, the value of my morning coffee ritual is not in the lack of action, or even the coffee itself, but in the inner peace those quiet seconds foster. Nothing can be as rewarding as anything, and I encourage everyone to add some of it to their bucket lists.

Published by

Thomas Ward

Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Alabama. Research focus on creativity.

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