This summer when I returned from five weeks in Europe, I had nothing to do. It was early June, and my summer job didn’t start until mid-July. I had six weeks, six glorious job and school-free weeks to do nothing. What a gift! I will never have this ever again, I thought. I should do things! Big things! I should go on a life changing road trip! I should Live Life To The Fullest! My Google searches included things like: ‘Best places to explore Summer 2015,’ ‘Coolest camping spots in Ontario,’ or ‘Music Festivals in New York.’ However, my depleted bank account crushed my ambitions, and I ended up Doing Nothing. Or at least, that was my response when people asked me what I was up to. “Nothing,” I’d say. “I’m doing nothing.”
Here’s what I learned pretty quickly within those six weeks: I had forgotten how to do nothing, or perhaps, how to just be. I was disappointed in myself, upset that I wasn’t maximizing the time off that I had always longed for in the past. Like most other students, I’ve never really had nothing to do since starting at Queen’s. Even during summers or Christmas breaks, there is always something to be doing, or something looming on the horizon to prepare for. That’s just the way it is for us; we live reading-to-reading, midterm-to-midterm, counting down days and crossing off assignments until we have a break. So why did I feel restless, even useless, when I finally got what I’d hoped for?
This is a sentiment that I know I don’t face alone. I’ve heard it so many times from students and young people:
“I got so bored at home I didn’t know what to do with myself”
“I have nothing due this week, what am I going to do with myself?”
“I feel so unproductive when I have nothing to do.”
Let’s be honest – we often cram our nothingness with mindless Netflix marathons, or aimless scrolling through the abyss of the Internet. While I love these things just as much as the next person, I think it often acts as a way to fill the gaps that we have forgotten how to fill in other ways, ways that force us to just be.
Let me stop using the word “nothing” for a moment. Or rather, let me alter its connotation. We act as if nothing is a bottomless pit. We use it negatively, to denote unproductiveness, laziness, and lonesomeness. But really, the word nothing is most often a lie. When someone asks what you did yesterday and you say nothing, you’re lying! If all you did was wake up and brush your teeth (I hope), that was still something. Here is what I want us to understand – we are not worthless when we are doing nothing. We are not failures when we are not filling our time and schedules. We must re-learn how to enjoy our nothingness, sans Netflix.
Now, I want to be clear – I get that the ability to have mindless hours to have nothing is (ironically) often a privilege. I know some people would love to heed my advice, but are busy working multiple jobs, staying overtime at Stauffer to catch up on school, or are dedicating their time to worthy causes. These are good things, important things, and I’ve been there (I’m there now, actually). But even the most responsibility-laden of us will have our precious moments of nothing, however short they may be. Right now is a vital point in our young lives where the ultimate goal is to challenge ourselves, to learn to think critically, to create, to be. Hopefully, we’ll discover more of our true selves in that process. So yes, “doing nothing” is a privilege, and that’s exactly why I think we need to harness its potential.
The truth is, I loved my six weeks of nothing this summer, broke as can be. I read books. I biked around by myself. I sat in my backyard and talked to my friends. I watched live music near my house. I invited people over for drinks. I did things, things that had nothing to do with grades or job applications or progress or achievement and dare I say, it felt pretty good. I grew to enjoy my alone time, filling my days with simplicity, contentedness, and connection. I was happy doing nothing, and I’m grateful – grateful because I might never have that again, and because I learned that I could be happy being and not just doing.
Embrace nothingness when you are lucky enough to have it. Not to get cryptic, but one day you may not have that chance. You’ll be stuck in traffic on the way to work, or travelling to a conference, or working on your dissertation, or making food for your kids. And you won’t be able to serve them ramen and peanut butter and have it pass as dinner.
Seriously, the point is, please be ok with doing nothing. Because trust me, by learning how to be, you’ll be doing something, and that something will be deeply, exceedingly valuable. Do the unpopular thing and embrace nothingness – drawing, reading books, calling your grandma, going for walks, whatever it may be. I hope you’ll see that bottomless pit of nothing transform into a canvas waiting to be painted upon.
Shauna McGinn, Online Columnist