The Acceptance of Idleness

I recently read an article entitled “In Defense of Idleness.” Written by Bertrand Russell in 1932, it makes a logical argument for why no one should work more than four hours a day, citing health, wealth and happiness as the outcome of a shortened workday. Russell says that if everyone stopped working so much then we all would have more leisure time and would contribute more to the economy. We would have time to do the things that are important to us outside of the realm of paid work. I suspect Russell had strong anarchist leanings, but I’m currently living almost exactly as he suggests, although not exactly by choice.


I am a recent college graduate, and in the rush of finals, returning library books and saying goodbye, I forgot to plan what happens next. People asked, and I shrugged. Now, nearly a month and half later, people ask me, and I still shrug. I was hired at a local coffee shop and work for slightly more than minimum wage for four hours a day. I am also living with my parents in a town where I know no one. Russell’s promise of “happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness and dyspepsia” is a welcome allowance to someone like me who finds my previously exhausting days suddenly emptied of anything that seems important.

However, despite his arguments, I feel a little lost at the end of my day. Sometimes I wonder what exactly I have accomplished. I watch movies. I read books. I sit in coffee shops and make up stories about the people that I see. And I work just about four hours a day. I have very little to do, and I worry that I’m settling into a sort of post-college malaise, which is almost unavoidable, being alone in a new town.

When I was a kid I remember having required naptimes; I would sulk in the confines of my room while the bright world went on without me. That’s sort of how these months feel.

Anyone I talk to tells me that the transition from college to real life is hard. Annie Dillard writes, “Don’t worry about what you will do the first year after college. It’s not what you will do the rest of your life.” And I mostly believe her. But the only complaint I have with my lazy life is the unshakable feeling that I am wasting my time. I should be out saving orphans and feeding the homeless—isn’t that what college prepared me for in the first place? Instead, I am trying to save money to buy a car to go to another city where I can make another small step towards eventual independence. The progression is almost infuriating.

So what can I do? My time here feels selfish, and my contribution to society is minimal. And yet, maybe that is the conclusion.

Wendell Berry writes, “Everyone is given a place. You should be what that place needs.” And perhaps my place right now is to make the best lattes, to love my parents, to drive my little sister around and to prepare myself for whatever comes next? I know I’m not content to settle for something simple and easy, and that intentional independence will come, even if it is slow. Maybe it is enough to just be content in that, for now.

One of my friends told me once that she hates living a “balanced” life. She said that she would much rather live a life of “tension”—balance just feels so terrifying, like someone caught on a high wire without a net. Tension takes into consideration the pulls of life, the struggle to maintain a healthy worldview; a less precise, more constant battle.

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And right now my life is full of tension—the tension between being content to let my life be simple in the place I have been given and desperately desiring radical change and experiences. Some days it takes all of my willpower (plus the reminder of student loans) to keep from booking the next plane ticket to Calcutta, or at least New York City, where I imagine great and exciting things are happening.

The accusations that I whisper to myself are serious ones, and for the sake of contentment I must refute them. I have to allow myself the freedom to live simply, to not expect earth-shattering things right away. In his book Telling Secrets, Fredrick Buechner writes, “I believe that we all of us have … a kind of sacred commission to be happy—in the sense of being free to breathe and move, in the sense of being able to bless our own lives, because through all our times we can learn and grow, and through all our times, if we keep our ears open, God speaks to us his saving word.”

I think college taught me to be happy when I was overwhelmingly busy, when I was moving purposefully forward. And now it’s time for me to learn a different happiness—to “bless my own life” in the spaces I find myself confronted with, to allow myself the tension of transition and to know that this time, static as it seems, can also be filled with God’s work—even if it is just through selling coffee four hours a day.

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