O ye! who have your eyeballs vex’d and tir’d,
Feast them upon the wideness of the sea.
Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.
It is an unfortunate fact that very few people are able to be idle successfully. I think it is not so much because we misuse idleness as because we misinterpret it that the long days become increasingly demoralizing. I would ask no one to accept a forced idleness without objection or regret. Such an acceptance would imply a lack of spirit, to say the least. But idleness and rest are not incompatible; neither are idleness and service, nor idleness and contentment. If we can look upon rest as a preparation for service, if we can make it serve us in the opportunity it gives for quiet growth and legitimate enjoyment, then it is fully justified and it may offer advantages and opportunity of the best.
The chief trouble with idleness is that it so often means introspection, worry, and impatience, especially to those conscientious souls who would fain be about their business.
I have for a long time been accustomed to combat the worry and fret of necessary idleness—not by forbidding it, not by advising struggle and fight against it, but by insisting that the best way to get rid of it is to leave it alone, to accept it. When we do this there may come a kind of fallow time in which the mind enriches and refreshes itself beyond our conception.
I would rather my patient who must rest for a long time would give up all thought of method, would give up all idea of making his mind follow any particular line of thought or absence of thought. I know that the mind which has been under conscious control a good deal of the time is apt to rebel at this freedom and to indulge in all kinds of alarming extravagances. I am sure, however, that the best way to meet these demands for conscious control is to be careless of them, to be willing to experience these extravagances and inconsistencies without fear, in the belief that finally will come a quiet and peace which will be all that we can ask. The peace of mind that is unguided, in the conscious and literal sense, is a thing which too few of us know.
Mr. Arnold Bennett, in his little book, “How to Live on Twenty-four Hours a Day,” teaches that we should leave no time unused in our lives; that we should accomplish a great deal more and be infinitely more effective and progressive if we devoted our minds to the definite working-out of necessary problems whenever those times occur in which we are apt to be desultory. I wish here to make a plea for desultoriness and for an idleness which goes even beyond the idleness of the man who reads the newspaper and forgets what he has read. It seems to me better, whether we are sick or well, to allow long periods in our lives when we think only casually. To the good old adage, “Work while you work and play while you play,” we might well add, “Rest while you rest,” lest in the end you should be unable successfully either to work or play.
A man is not necessarily condemned to tortures of mind because he must rest for a week or a month or a year. I know that there must be anxious times, especially when idleness means dependence, and when it brings hardship to those who need our help. But the invalid must not try constantly to puzzle the matter out. If we do not make ourselves sick with worry, we shall be able sometime to approach active life with sufficient frankness and force. It is the constant effort of the poor, tired mind to solve its problems that not only fails of its object, but plunges the invalid deeper into discouragement and misunderstanding. How cruel this is, and how unfortunate that it should come more commonly to those who try the hardest to overcome their handicaps, to throw off the yoke of idleness and to be well.
When you have tried your best to get back to your work and have failed, when you have done this not once but many times, it is inevitable that misunderstanding should creep in, inevitable that you should question very deeply and doubt not infrequently. Yet the chances are that one of the reasons for your failure is that you have tried too hard, that you have not known how to rest. When you have learned how to rest, when you have learned to put off thinking and planning until the mind becomes fresh and clear, when you are in a fair way to know the joy of idleness and the peace of rest, you are a great deal more likely to get back to efficiency and to find your way along the great paths of activity into the world of life.
It is not so much the idleness, then, as the attempt to overcome its irksomeness, that makes this condition painful. The invalid in bed is in a trap, to be tormented by his thoughts unless he knows the meaning of successful idleness. This knowledge may come to him by such strategy as I have suggested—by giving up the struggle against worry and fret; but peace will come surely, steadily, “with healing in its wings,” when the mind is changed altogether, when life becomes free because of a growth and development that finds significance even in idleness, that sees the world with wise and patient eyes.
In a way it does not matter, your physical condition or mine, if our “eyes have seen the glory” that deifies life and makes even its waste places beautiful. What is that view from your window as you lie in your bed? A bit of the sea, if you are fortunate, a corner of garden, surely, the top of an elm tree against the blue. What is it but the revelations of a God in the world? There is enough that is sad and unhappy, but over all are these simple, ineffable things. If the garden is an expression of God in the world, then the world and life are no longer meaningless. Even idleness becomes in some degree bearable because it is a part of a significant world.
Unfortunately, the idleness of disability often means pain, the wear and tear of physical or nervous suffering. That is another matter. We cannot meet it fully with any philosophy. My patients very often beg to know the best way to bear pain, how they may overcome the attacks of “nerves” that are harder to bear than pain. To such a question I can only say that the time to bear pain is before and after. Live in such a way in the times of comparative comfort that the attacks are less likely to appear and easier to bear when they do come. After the pain or the “nervous” attack is over, that is the time to prevent the worst features of another. Forget the distress; live simply and happily in spite of the memory, and you will have done all that the patient himself can do to ward off or to make tolerable the next occasion of suffering. Pain itself—pure physical pain—is a matter for the physician’s judgment. It is his business to seek out the causes and apply the remedy.