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Charlie Mitchell: A case for doing nothing

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

OXFORD -- Walking ahead of two young people when one asked the other, "What are you doing this summer?" 

 

It has been a wicked winter in Mississippi. Day after day of gray skies, rain, wind. As soon as the temperature would rise above freezing for 10 minutes, another North wind would send the mercury into retreat again. 

 

This is a state where jonquils are not uncommon soon after New Year's Day. This year, the bulbs stayed buried until late March. 

 

But at last people can think about summer, even believe there will be one. 

 

Anyway, the other young person responded, "Nothing." And her response was in a rather sad voice. 

 

That was perturbing. 

 

There's nothing wrong with nothing. 

 

People -- especially young people -- are far too busy these days. 

 

Multitasking. 

 

Those with cells usually have three or four conversations under way at one time, on their way to the next activity, the next event. It's as if their lives will end if there's a tweet they "need" to see and two minutes pass before they see it. 

 

It's phenomenal how they check in with each other every few seconds. No reason. Just checking in. 

 

Smart phones are making us dumb. 

 

Now I don't throw in with those who love to loathe "digital natives," as those who don't remember life-before-texting have been dubbed. News stories about high schoolers struggling to complete a class assignment that requires them to stay offline for 24 hours are silly. The proportion of young people who are bright, engaged, caring, savvy folks is as great or greater than it ever was. 

 

It's just that technology makes too great a claim on their time and attention. 

 

One thing they have not been afforded is innocence. 

 

If you are over 35 or 40, did it ever once cross your mind that your day at school might include getting shot? 

 

Did you receive training -- extensive training -- in how to tell the difference between acceptable touches from an adult and touches that were unacceptable and should be reported? That there were good secrets and bad secrets? 

 

Was there constant monitoring of what you were watching on television, whether news, entertainment or commercials? Was every movie promo about shoot-outs, explosions or zombies? 

 

Or did you grow up during a time when your parents figured that if you showed up for meals, everything was OK? 

 

Today's 20-somethings were in grade school during the horrors of Sept. 11. You'd better believe they saw those images -- time and again. Think about the effect it would have had on your worldview today if you were 6 or 7 when those planes hit the buildings. 

 

Maybe this explains the constant "checking in." 

 

Edgar Allen Poe famously called sleep, "little slices of death." That's probably accurate. Most people don't do anything constructive, other than dream, while asleep. It's a time of "nothing." 

 

But there's another kind of doing nothing. 

 

There's productive nothingness. 

 

An hour or more with a relaxed mind can be a person's most creative time of day. 

 

No one uses the word "cogitate" anymore, but it's a fine word. It means to mull things over, to contemplate options, perhaps to come up with an idea or a plan of action. 

 

Ponder. Ruminate. And, yes, if you own a proper yoga outfit, meditate. 

 

Clear the cobwebs. 

 

Pausing to reflect is absent from modern life. We could blame TV. Why not, we blame it for everything else? Reporter asks question; interviewee is expected to fire off some responsive words immediately. Get a text. Reply with lightning speed. 

 

It's likely that young people's minds have evolved to be able to think faster than their parents and their parents' parents, to size up a situation and comment immediately. 

 

Professional interrogators are now taught to ask a question, then pause after the first answer and wait. Soon, the "dead air" will become too oppressive and the person being interrogated will chirp. 

 

But the value of silence, I hope, has not completely vanished from the human experience. 

 

Next time you ask somebody what he or she has planned and the answer is, "Nothing," I hope you will say, "Good for you."

 

 

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