If you, like me, are a fundamentally lazy person, you will agree that summer break is the ideal time to indulge in the need to lay in the sun and do absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, though, the desire to give in to such urge is often accompanied by the fear of wasting precious time. It’s sometimes hard to disconnect from the fast pace of our everyday lives and, as a result, we feel like we should be using our free time to be somewhat productive as well, even if all we do is read a book we’ve been keeping on our nightstand for months (or finally write that article our kind editor gave us an extra
week to finish). What we often don’t realise, though, is that by forcing more productivity out of ourselves we are effectively renouncing the pleasure of down time. Well, you might be surprised to find (or not, if you’ve been reading this column long enough) that the ancient Romans can relate. And, personally, I find their approach to holidays, free time and the honoured art of doing nothing rather brilliant.
In Latin, the word otium specifically designates idle time, as opposed to negotium, the time spent working and taking care of one’s worries and occupations. In the view of a Roman citizen, both of these concepts have great importance to maintain a balanced everyday life. The practice of otium, in fact, is connected to self-reflection and to what, nowadays, we would call self-care: to the poet Horatio, it’s fundamental to relieve stress and therefore to find true happiness, while Ovid says he relies on it to spark his creativity and aid his literary production, or even to relieve the pain of a bad breakup. This view presents the idea of “doing nothing” in a positive light, without associating it with laziness or feelings of shame for wasting time; on the contrary, the act of taking time off and using it for personal development and reflection is regarded as a just and necessary practice, and is therefore productive in its own way. In my opinion, we have kind of lost this idea of productive idleness, and it’s a shame. Despite all the cries for more attention to self-care we have been hearing recently, the way our mode of life is arranged in the present still tends to devalue and overlook free time, and what is a fundamentally human need to rest and, more importantly, be alone with oneself once in a while.
In fact, it wasn’t only the Romans who appreciated the pleasure of idleness. Throughout history and across cultures, humanity has always found ways to make time to unwind, celebrate, and rest. The Romans had entire months in their calendars that were considered national holidays, so that everyone could have a chance to take a break; with Christianity, pure idleness became more associated with laziness and sloth, and thus frowned upon, but the value of quiet contemplation was also stressed, and personal (if spiritually charged) time encouraged. Without needing to go that far back, flaneurs in the 1800s considered the idle time of observation and study of the world fundamental to their artistic inspiration and production. Even the ways of relaxing and unwinding have remained surprisingly similar throughout time: having parties and drinking with friends, going away to a distant, peaceful location near the sea, taking long walks, enjoying art and music and good conversation, playing games together. There is great pleasure to be taken in down time, especially if it’s used to do absolutely nothing whatsoever, and I think it’s unfortunate we so often forget about it.
Unfortunately, like many pleasurable things, the higher classes have always had (and still have) privileged access to holidays and free time, in whatever form they might be enjoyed. These differences undoubtedly play a part in our modern ideas of the futility of idleness and its perceived image as a “waste of time”, but none of this has yet been enough to erase the deep, universal need for rest present in everyone. To me, this is not only a biological instinct, but a deeply personal necessity too. Everyone needs to disconnect from the outside world sometimes, both to connect with their own feelings and thoughts and to find the balance needed for any sort of creative or social effort. Doing nothing can be very important, paradoxically, to be able to do anything. So, as my last advice in this column, I invite you to enjoy your summer, specifically by laying in the sun and doing nothing. And maybe, once in a while, spare a thought for the Ancients, and remember how their cultures, so distant in times, are actually still pretty close to ours today.
[Isabel Ferrari – she/her]