#2. The Art of Doing Nothing

Dear Reader,

I have been reading a lot. But the month isn’t over yet, and I dislike mid-month reading wrap ups. So, this is about a book I read in December and some things I’ve felt for a long long time. 

•••

I’m roughly at age 13, sitting at my study desk. An exam timetable is pinned on the board behind me. Seated next to me is my mother, who now looks at me, holding up pages of wrongly solved equations. 

“How do you not know how to solve these? Didn't they go over this at school?” She asks. 

I tell her that I didn’t understand them properly in class. This is, self admittedly a lie. Truth is that my desk in class was next to the window and I was busy trying to out-stare a crow. A close contest, that ended with the crow flying away — which I naturally took as a sign of my victory. Something tells me that Amma will not be too impressed with this truth, hence, the lie. She’s already trying to re-explain the equations to me, so I forcefully try to listen.

***

A few days later, my grandfather holds up a book and thunderously declares, “Numbers are magical!” Okay fine, I don’t remember what he exactly said, but it was something along these lines. My father muted the 9 PM news bulletin, giving this declaration the silence it truly deserves. Everyone is looking at my grandfather —  me particularly, with a face of utter disgust. He has taken it upon himself for a week or so now to make Math interesting for me. He spent days going through my syllabus, trying to find connections, make notes and ultimately work towards convincing me that numbers are interesting. The thunderous declaration marks the end of his note-taking. He shows me the bundle of papers, trying to explain how he has made things easier for me. All this while he speaks in a contagious mix of Malayalam and English. I look at the notes — all examples involve coconuts, kappa (tapioca) or bags of rice. How typically Malayali of us. 

My father has lost interest and unmuted Rajdeep Sardesai’s 9PM election coverage. Missing more than five minutes of Rajdeep Sardesai is too rebellious for him. He sips on his tea, fully charged for the news debate. Meanwhile, I’m still stuck with numbers. I pretend as well as I can to understand my grandfather’s techniques. But the truth is that I lost track even before he started. I take his neatly written notes and place it on my desk.

***

The coming weekend my father wakes me up early, to teach me how to ride a bicycle. He makes me practice for more than an hour, by the end of which I have fallen three times. On our walk back home, I don’t get any sympathy for the falls. Instead I get jokes, which I know will be repeated at family dinners. He also offers a comforting metaphor about how one must get over the fear of falling. I appreciate the poetic touch, and make a mental note to use it in my English essay. I’m tired, but excited for the day. Falling three times is a great excuse to not touch my math book for the weekend. No one can argue with a bruised leg.

***

Fast forward to now, at 21— a cusp of an age. No one to stop me from getting into staring matches with crows, no one to monitor what food I eat, no math exams to deal with. You could say that I've cut out the things I didn't like, my life should be easier lived and less noisy.

But on the contrary, I’m surrounded by people planning, perfecting and making their lives. It’s funny how even an art college is filled with people under a constant frenzy of feeling like they’re not doing enough. As much as I hate the word, it seems as though every other day, someone in my life is feeling not productive. About a year ago, I wrote a whole other piece explaining my dislike (hate) for the word. Here, I want to be a little more articulate, and a little less simplistic.

HOW TO DO NOTHING

In her book How To Do Nothing: The Art of Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell says —“I hear, see, and smell things in a world where others also hear, see, and smell me. And it takes a break to remember that: a break to do nothing, to just listen, to remember in the deepest sense what, when, and where we are.” 

If there was one  book I could airdrop all over Silicon Valley, it would be this one. 

Her book is a complete and comprehensive breakdown of how technology has monetized our attention and how it has changed the way we perceive space, time and our lives in general. One of the key things Jenny Odell tries to uncover is understanding how we came to define productivity the way we do. 

The book took me back to many moments and questioned how I remembered them. Specifically I thought of a day about two two months ago. I spent the whole afternoon that day trying to perfect an American accent and failed. I watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and wept, before going up to the rooftop only to be bitten by mosquitoes. A  friend asked me later at dinner what I’d been upto all day. I sighed and said, “Absolutely nothing.”

Throughout reading Jenny Odell’s book, I kept revisiting this day. One when I felt joy, sorrow, pain — things that confirm my human existence, and I still had the audacity to call it nothing. It drove me to recognize my own problematic existence. I don't know when this shift happened, when did I start viewing my life as some sort of economic venture?

I think of the day I fell three times and my father’s obscure metaphor. That wasn’t actually the day I learnt how to balance myself on the bicycle, it took me weeks after that. But it still counts, as a day of my existence. My grandfather wasn’t actually successful in sparking an interest for Math in me — but he did experience multiple moments of joy in making those coconut filled example problems. That counts too, all of it does. I found 13-year-old me to be less corrupt — only interested in living days and not needlessly labelling them as ‘useful,’ ‘nothing,’ or even ‘work-in-progress.’ 

How to do nothing, felt like a percing magic bullet, effortlessly recognizing so many flaws in everything I saw and believed. When Odell says 'nothing,' she does not literally mean ‘nothing.’ She means things we have come to think of as nothing. Things that make us human, things we no longer value because they don’t come with a numerical value attached to it — be it likes, re-tweets, money or any other form of deliverable.

Almost everyday, someone I know is on an ‘Insta-Break,’ or a ‘Digital Detox.’ All  seemingly nice things to hear. The thought of Mark Zukerberg making less money thrills me. But it stings to watch the digital time off being converted into a phase of cramming life with weight loss routines, personal projects, 5 year plans and what not. 

Quitting Instagram is an easy quick-fix, but it is useless without  undertaking the harder work of not letting billionaires and corporations define what productivity is. We’re being coerced into thinking of time as the resource, but actually we are the resource — our attention, our body, our feelings. We need to as Odell says, start "doing nothing as an act of political resistance against the attention economy." 

Digital detox won’t help unless we stop trying to optimize our life. We all know people who aren't very active on social media, but still heavily invested in its teachings. To completely stop participating doesn’t ensure peace of mind. The need is to begin participating on our own terms. Because ultimately our attention is still ours, Zukerberg can only make money off it, he can't own it. 

Odell's arguments are of course anti-capitalist. It's easy to ideologically box her, but ultimately it's far more useful to see the merits of her argument, especially considering what's at stake here is our collective mental well being.

The key is to replant the 13-year-old self, and live out days rather than utilizing them. This doesn't mean not getting things done, in fact it might just mean getting a lot more done, without even knowing it.

Thank you for reading.