There's a lot happening these days, and with the winter and COVID driving us all inside, we can find ourselves with increasingly little physical space, in additoin to mental. More and more of my friends are privately confiding in me that they feel a kind of numbess, like their bodies are just saying: "Stop. No more, please." I feel this. I struggle to write anymore. What used to be a pleasurable daily practice of recording reasonably linear thoughts as descended into a chaos of meaningless fragment.
Ugh, we're all just... so overwhelmed.
In truth, it's rare that I prescribe a book that so directly addresses a pain point, but Jenny Odell's "How to Do Nothing" is my one, beautiful exception. With gratifying precision, Odell traces how society impacts technology impacts society impacts personality, and arrives at a generous theory for both how we ended up here, and how we might get out, i.e. "to do nothing." Ultimately, she visualizes an absence of obviously productive activity as a form of necessary resistance, particularly if we hope to carve out the imaginative space that will be required to thrive in—and frankly, survive beyond—the twenty first century:
"There are more things in mind, in the imagination, than 'you' can keep track of—thoughts, memories, images, angers, delights, rise unbidden. The depths of mind, he unconscious, are our inner wilderness areas, and that is where a bobcat is right now. I do not mean personal bobcats in personal psyches, but the bobcat that roams from dream to dream."
Personally, prior to 2020, it had been a decade or more since I'd spent an entire afternoon just sitting and looking, uninterrupted, at something that wasn't a screen. This past year, however perversely, afforded me the opportunity to experience something I hadn't in ages: boredom. Just outright boredom. COVID, it seems, had created a gap in the wall of what I will call "emotional" capitalism. That is, the constant and overpowering pressure to shape even our most private lives according to metrics of tangible output and efficiency. We "spend" time or we "waste" time. We have to do things right, "feel" them correctly, have only good friends, write when we're not working, read when we brush our teeth, catch up on podcasts, know what everybody else seems to be knowing. We all know this is exhausting. Until COVID, though, none of us had a gigantic, collective psychological permission slip to refuse it. Doing "nothing," these days, is all that most of us can do. In fact, doing nothing has become our shared moral imperative.
Many of my friends are also anxiously wondering when our lives will be able to go back to normal. I find myself more anxious that things won't continue to be different. The way we've been living has been too unsustainable, for too long. Not just for our own selves (the constant push to perform, to create, to make, to make money), but for the planet, as a whole. Buried in the news coverage have been a few, meek reports from the the UN: the recent, steep decline in ecological diversity has created the conditions for viruses like COVID to flourish. If we beat this flu, and it seems we will, it's only a matter of time until we face the next outbreak. The clock is running out for us. Not just in terms of viral outbreaks, but in all the ways our vulnerability to these outbreaks connects to other forms of our abject inaction—on the environment, on healthcare, on housing. We will need to quickly and bravely reimagine the systems that currently govern our world, but we also need to be ready to approach these changes emotionally (philosophically?), as individuals. This is where a break from "emotional" capitalism may offer a surprising benefit, albeit afforded to us under the absolute worst of circumstances, as these things often are.
What better time to take a break from what we can "do" and give ourselves the space to consider, freely and without constraint, what we might "be"?Things have to change, which means that we have to change first. Now could be a fertile time for nurturing that strength; for cultivating the love—and also willingness to sacrifice—that will be required of us.
Odell's book is an excellent first step.
"Realities are, after all, inhabitale," she writes. "If we can rener a new reality together—with attention—perhaps we can meet each other there."