Ask Not “What Are You Doing?”
I’m suspicious of people who like to tell everyone how “busy” they are. And I’m uncomfortable with those who are constantly moving and doing. (This is my husband’s existential challenge to me. In our decade together, I think he’s become less fidgety and I’ve become more tolerant. Or at least I know when to leave the room.)
Instead, I admire those people who can float through the morass with grace and poise. Or weather the chaos with both feet planted sensuously in the rich earth. That’s something that attracted me to modern dancer Isadora Duncan, the subject of my first book. Strong at the center, light at the edges. That’s how she comported herself. She never, ever hurried.
Remember those TV commercials? I think they were TV commercials, for an anti-perspirant. “Never let them see you sweat.”
The other day I heard this poem by Oscar Wilde read on ABC Radio National, Australia’s public radio. (We’re visiting Ross’s rellies in Sydney.) Wilde was another turn-of-the-twentieth-century artist who moved calmly through tempestuous tides with exemplary self-possession and style. Here’s what he says about doing nothing:
Action is the refuge of people who have nothing whatsoever to do.
Its basis is the lack of imagination.
It is the last resource of those who know not how to dream.
Action is limited and relative.
Unlimited and absolute is the vision of him who sits at ease and watches,
Who walks in loneliness and dreams.
So completely are people dominated by the tyranny of this dreadful social ideal
That they are always coming shamelessly up to one at private views and other places that are open to the general public and saying, in a loud, stentorian voice,
“What are you doing?”
Whereas, “What are you thinking?” is the only question that any civilized being should ever be allowed to whisper to another.
Contemplation is the gravest sin of which any citizen can be guilty.
In the opinion of the highest culture it is the proper occupation of man.
Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world.
The most difficult and the most intellectual.
It is to do nothing that the elect exist.
The contemplative life–the life that has for its aim not doing but being–
Not being merely but becoming–
This is what the critical spirit can give us.
The gods live thus.
— Oscar Wilde, 1890