Busy doing nothing

Busy doing nothing

For our summer holidays in 2015, my friends and I hired a cottage in Grasmere in the Lake District. There were some spectacular views, some spectacular food and a lot of spectacular rainfall. Thankfully, it only rained early in the morning and in the evening, so we were able to walk, go for a trip on Windermere and visit a lot of cake shops (you’ve got to love a fruity scone).

We spent a lot of time just relaxing in the cottage. Halfway through the week, I realised that we didn’t speak much when we spent time together in the lounge. We weren’t sitting awkwardly in silence or staring into space (well, I did a bit of that, but I think that was just me), we were reading, playing some solo games or doing a crossword.

I started to stress about this a bit. Why weren’t we laughing hilariously all the time, like people seem to in adverts? Why weren’t we taking selfies? Why weren’t we putting the world to rights or discussing deep, philosophical matters? I grew a little disappointed in myself. I began to wonder if I wasn’t very good company. I’m not a huge fan of ‘banter’ (and even less of a fan when it’s shortened to ‘bants’), but I had thought myself to be more of a raconteur than seemed to be the case.

I am an inveterate worrier, so this thought played on my mind. If I wasn’t very good company, then these friends might not want to carry on spending time with me. If we didn’t come home with tales of the times we spent talking late into the night or of when we did amazing things, then perhaps I was a bit of a friend failure.

In the 21st century, we’re assaulted on all side by images of what our lives should be like: adverts feature ideal lifestyles, people’s Facebook feeds are crammed with photos of them living life to the full, TV programmes and websites feature lists of 50 things to do before you die (‘Come on! Swim with dolphins!’). If we judge ourselves by these standards, as I had started to, sitting in that cottage in Grasmere, we will always come up short. Because these are idealised, carefully edited pictures of the perfect life. They’re not real life.

And after a bit of fretting, I realised that we weren’t failing to have an amazing time, we were enjoying doing nothing together. And once I’d worked this out, I enjoyed myself all the more – reading a book, watching the birds feeding in the garden, playing patience. If you’re single and live on your own, you don’t get much opportunity to share this ‘doing nothing’ time with anyone else. And so, this time doing very little as the rain cascaded down outside became very precious.

The journalist Felicity Green once said, ‘I have plenty of people to do things with, but I just have no one to do nothing with.’ She made this comment after she had been widowed, having spent years together with her husband. Esther Rantzen and the actor Sheila Hancock have both said similar things after losing their husbands. Getting used to being alone after sharing life with someone for so long must be heart-rending, but this idea of having no one to do nothing with applies to all single people.

So much of life is constructed around doing ‘things’. We arrange to meet for dinner, we go to the football, we go out for a walk. We never invite people round to our house to spend an afternoon binge-watching a box set or to sit with us as we do the ironing.

It’s the same with church – small groups, prayer evenings, services and other regular meetings are complemented by special events around festivals or the local calendar. It’s all do, do, do and there’s little time to be. We have the idea that if we do something that isn’t structured or doesn’t involve anything explicitly spiritual, we’re wasting everyone’s time. Even during times of retreat, when we’re meant to stop being busy, the expectation is there that you’ll spend the time in prayer and meditation. I’ve never heard of a retreat time when a group of people are told just to sit about together and do nothing in particular…

I wonder what ‘doing nothing’ looks like in church. How can we connect people together and help facilitate this important, but woefully underrated part of our lives? There’s no doubt that providing a space to do nothing, or a network of people who would be happy to pop round and do nothing with each other would be of great help to many people of all ages. And as churches, we are uniquely placed to provide something like this. So why don’t we?

This article was first seen in Mothers’ Union’s outreach magazine Families First www.familiesfirstmagazine.com

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