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The art of doing nowt

In Midweek’s Out of The Past feature, published last month, writer Marlene Ditchfield introduced us to Masterton icon Dr Harry Palmer – who worked from his home-based practice on Dixon St from 1945-60. By all accounts, an exceptional human: gifted GP and obstetrician, father of six, and jack of all trades. According to his son, when not delivering babies or doing house calls, Dr Palmer was knee-deep in a passion project: Building his own television sets, photography, making model railways, or reciting “long passages from Shakespeare”.

Reading Marlene’s story, I felt inspired. And exhausted. I do hope Dr Palmer had some days he could doze off in his favourite fire-side armchair after a warm beverage.

And then…guilty. If Dr Palmer, a terminally busy physician, found time for extra-curricular pursuits, why am I spending most evenings sprawled out on the couch, Youtube chattering in the background, with creative writing projects gathering dust in the depths of Google Docs?

I was reminded of Dr Palmer, and my own crisis in confidence, when watching Seven Sharp’s interview with US author Jenny Odell. In her writings, Odell discusses humans’ obsession with “doing” and, by contrast, the importance of “being”. Taking time to stop, sit in the garden…and not do much of anything.

The Dutch refer to this concept as “niksen”: “To do nothing, to be idle or do something without any use.” According to mental health specialists, practising niksen could be as simple “as just hanging around, looking at your surroundings or listening to music — as long as it’s without purpose”.

In today’s world, doing nothing is a radical act. Time is money. To be as busy as humanly possible [and over-tired, over-committed, and burnt out] is a badge of honour.

Academics refer to this phenomenon as “internalised capitalism”: the idea, originating with the Protestant work ethic, that self-worth is directly linked to productivity. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, after all. Some argue this has worsened with social media: Productivity is everything, and so too is cultivating the image of productivity. Facebook seems to be a never-ending highlights reel of clean houses, completed knitting projects, and homemade sushi.

Internalised capitalism was on full display during the covid lockdowns. Sanctimonious Twitter posts abounded: “if you don’t come out of quarantine with a new skill or more knowledge, then you didn’t lack the time, you lacked the discipline.” Nice theory – if you’re not a solo parent struggling with homeschooling, a disabled person cut off from their supports, or recently unemployed and spending hours on the phone with WINZ.

Pandemic aside, we don’t “have the same 24 hours”. Someone with access to transport, regular childcare, and an equal domestic partnership will have more time to devote to their hobbies than someone who does not. Jenny Odell said it herself: “it boils down to power and who has it”.

More recently, doing nothing is framed as a positive, stress-relieving tactic. Practising niksen has been linked not only to reducing anxiety, but to a curtailed process and strengthened ability to fight off a common cold. Plus, resting can boost creative thinking, problem-solving ability, and sustained focus.

And yet, old habits die hard.

So, as a reasonably hard-working editor, mother-to-be, and human being…I’m working on beating the guilt, and embrace niksen. Wairarapa, I encourage you to do the same. Drink your coffee extra slowly, stroll aimlessly around the block, get trapped under a warm pet or napping child, zone out in front of Netflix. There’s more to humans than good little worker bees. And, sometimes, you just need a nap.

Dr Palmer was amazing. But we don’t all have the energy for reciting Shakespeare after work. Be idle, and enjoy it. The devil will cope.

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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