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Hard at work . . . thinking. (Jill Chen/iStockphoto)
Hard at work . . . thinking. (Jill Chen/iStockphoto)

Margaret Wente

In praise of the wandering mind Add to ...

There's one substantial drawback to spending weekends in the country. Everyone is busy, busy, busy.

I was surprised to discover this. Somehow I imagined that people who are attracted to the beauties of nature are the same kind of people who like to stop and smell the roses. Wrong. They're too busy growing them.

The countryside is full of industrious, Type-A folks who can't leave well enough alone. Their idea of fun is work. They like to dig and plant, weed and mulch and water until they faint from heat exhaustion. If you are married to such a person, it is difficult to sit in the shade with a gin and tonic and a good book as he wheels around large barrows of sheep manure. You will get not-so-subtle hints, even dirty looks. You will be obliged to help with the weeding. The fact that you are trying to finish War and Peace is not regarded as a legitimate excuse.

It's not as if these people don't work hard already. They work like crazy. From Monday through Friday, they are overwhelmed with deadlines, meetings, e-mails, cranky clients, impatient bosses and impossible demands. They like the peace and quiet of the country. But because they are driven, high-achieving types, their idea of getting away from work is more work. Some shovel sheep manure. Some get tractors and dig holes, and some rewire their old houses from scratch. They cut down trees, clear trails, build stone walls, muck out the barn, and plant vast organic vegetable gardens whose proceeds they pick, scrub, wash, chop, cook, pickle, jar and freeze - if the vermin don't get there first. They have more deadlines and chores and to-do lists than they have in the city, and then, on Sunday night, they rush home through the traffic so they can get a jump on Monday.

To me, this hardly looks like leisure. It looks exhausting. It looks like the kind of work that, if you had to do it from the age of 12, would make you want to scrimp and save and move to the city and go to law school to get away from it. Which, in fact, is more or less what my great-grandparents did. Perhaps it is some atavistic memory (rather than native sloth) that makes me so averse to manual labour, even on the weekend.

In our can-do, will-do, meritocratic culture, there's no such thing as a leisure class. Leisure - especially among the affluent - is considered decadent. You must be busy, busy, busy, and preferably you must sweat. Even philanthropy has been ensnared by the cult of strenuous activity. It's no longer sufficient to simply write a cheque to a good cause, like curing cancer, or educating kids in Africa. Today you're supposed to bike 106 kilometres to Niagara Falls, or go to Africa and build the school yourself. And if you happen to have any free time left over, you are advised to spend it doing crossword puzzles and mind games, so that you don't get senile.

But idleness has an upside. Some of the greatest discoveries of all time have been made by people who were sitting around doing nothing. Isaac Newton was having a contemplative cup of tea among the Woolsthorpe apple trees when one fell on his head and he came up with the law of gravity (or so the legend goes). Archimedes was taking a bath when he had his eureka moment. Many of us have our best ideas in the shower. It's those nonproductive moments that turn out to be the most productive of all.

New findings in neuroscience make a compelling case for idleness. Researchers have learned that your brain is often at its best when your body is engaged in low-level, undemanding activity (like showering) and you're not thinking about much of anything at all. Doing nothing may induce a state of "meta-awareness" that helps you work on important long-term problems. "For creativity, you need your mind to wander," research psychologist Jonathan Schooler told The New York Times.

So my husband should relax. Although it looks as though I'm goofing off, I may come up with the unified theory of physics at any time.

Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, also had a lot to say for idleness. He railed against what he called the cult of productivity, and thought we'd all be better off if we only worked four hours a day. "The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery," he wrote. (As a man of leisure himself, he spent his time coming up with logical positivism and campaigning to ban the bomb.) "Without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things," he wrote. "There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists." Without the leisure class, he argued, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism. It was the leisure class that "cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies, and refined social relations. Even the liberation of the oppressed has usually been inaugurated from above."

Not that I'm looking for excuses, but the leisure classes didn't waste much time weeding. My husband thinks I'm lazy because I lie around reading novels while he tills the soil. But actually, I'm achieving meta-awareness. And civilization will one day be the better for it.

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