Ask Not “What Are You Doing?”

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

0 Responses to Ask Not “What Are You Doing?”

  1. Maren January 13, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    thanks for this, Ann. I’m curious…how are you moving right now? I too admire the people who seem always steady, moving with grace, poise, confidence, and not rushing. I certainly feel good about myself when I move in this way – which are fleeting periods of time. It is what i strive for, because I know how good it feels.

    I also wince when people say to me, ‘oh you must be so busy’, or ‘i’m sure you’re busy,” or “it sounds like you’ve been really busy”…etc. to me it has begun to feel like ‘busy’ is an accusation. i have come to feel that when i’m busy, or when the impression of me is busy, that means i’m a failure at being a ‘good human being’ – ok, maybe it means to me i’ve failed at being a ‘stellar human being of the highest consciousness’- which i’ve come to equate with being calm, restful, measured.

    the only problem is that i’ve lived a full live for a very long time and honestly, i think i enjoy life much more when i have a balance that’s tipped more towards the moving and doing – as compared to some/many? people. too much sitting around contemplating the world can get me into trouble.

    So my question is, what does it really mean to be ‘busy’? is it an accusation or a complement? a label of busy has also implied to me “i’m so impressed with all the things you accomplish. you have so much ambition.” “ambition is a good thing” – which you’ve written, yet it seems that ambition and business are often equated in people’s language. or at least i’m confused.

    we’re told not to rush, that ‘busy’ is negative, and at the same time we’re told to take care of the world, to be generous, to help people, to take care of ourselves, to do good work, to promote our businesses, to follow our dreams, to be sensitive partners, to spend time with our children (which I don’t even have yet!), etc, etc.

    How can we not be busy?
    What is the difference between ‘being busy’ and ‘having a full life’?

    How do you feel when you feel busy? What does busy mean to you? How else do you describe your world? your style? your reality? How are you moving?

    Looking forward to your response….Maren

  2. Ann Daly January 13, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Maren. As always, I love hearing your take on life.

    How am I moving? Well, I’m midway through a week on a gorgeous Australian beach, so I’m taking wonderful daily walks up, down and through the headlands. Feels wonderful.

    I hate to feel frantic. I hate it, just hate it. It makes my mind freeze up and my body tense.

    That’s why I’m focusing on FLOW this year. I want to flow like Isadora, strength at the center and light at the edges.

    PS–It gets easier with age, to cast off the mysterious comments of other people. Who cares what they mean by “busy”? It’s just about listening to ourselves, our bodies.

    Miss you.

  3. Tami February 1, 2010 at 11:15 am #

    Ann, I love your description of Isadora Duncan, strong at the center, light at the edges. Wow! Do you mind if I use that for my personal mantra?

    I relate to Maren’s comment about the difference between a busy life and a full life. My cup often seems to run over with two teens at home, a husband who travels and an aging mother who needs me. Oh, and a small business to nurture. I keep reminding myself that I can’t make life all better for all those I hold dear. I can only do so much. I have a habit of saying yes too much, of wanting to help and to please. And yes, I have ambition. Lots of ambition. Maybe the best help I can give is to be strong at the center and light at the edges. The litmus test for me is asking if this strength and lightness is also something that I want to model for my daughter. And yes, it most definitely is.

    Wonderfully relevant blog, Ann!


  4. Ann Daly February 1, 2010 at 11:18 am #

    Tami, that Isadora was a smart one, wasn’t she!? I can definitely see you assuming her upward reaching pose!