Several days into our recent trip to the beach, a visit that included a boat excursion and some shopping, the kids awakened and began asking what we were going to do next.
“What we should do,” my mother-in-law suggested, “is nothing. Doing nothing is what vacations are supposed to be about.”
Summer is ideally about this very thing — the escape from schedule, the retreat from obligation, the freedom to let the mind wander.
In practice, though, summer tends to shape itself to the clock and the calendar like the rest of the year, even in the hours we’re away from the office or school. Children’s day camps, with their typical view of the day as a series of instructional blocks, can condition a youngster to think of summer as a box to be checked, not a season to be indulged. And those grim, what-I-did-this-summer essays from English class also incline us to think of summer as an action verb, something to do rather than be.
Maybe my kids will find themselves writing such an essay when they go back to school next week, marking the official close of summer for our family. The full weight of a new school year doesn’t settle about the shoulders until Labor Day, perhaps, but even so, this month’s return to campus is an occasion for stock-taking.
In this summer, many of the best parts of the season arrived while we were on our feet, behind the wheel or within a wave, whether it was hiking up a new trail, driving to a new campground, or swimming.
But I am grateful, too, for those rare moments of stillness that seem hard to quantify in the formal accounting of summer, though they have a value all their own. What I’m arguing for is the art of doing nothing, an indulgence that seems endangered in our hurried present, although it’s always had its challenges.
G.K. Chesterton, the successful English novelist and philosopher who died in 1936, confronted the compulsive busyness of his own era. “The most precious, the most consoling, the most pure and holy” thing, he concluded, is “the noble habit of doing nothing at all.”
Here’s Sydney Smith, another English writer, who lived even earlier, between 1771 and 1845: “Every now and then, be completely idle — do nothing at all.”
Want to know how Anton Chekhov, the great Russian writer now gone from us more than a century, achieved his greatness? Here, he gives us a hint: “My most intense pleasure is to walk or sit doing nothing.”
The point is not that unbridled laziness wins the day, but that the most industrious souls among us sustain their energy precisely because they balance ambition with repose.
So think of this as a public service announcement as the curtain begins to descend on another summer.
The season isn’t finished just yet. There might still be one small space on your summer calendar that’s blank. Avoid the temptation to fill it. There’s an ideal answer, after all, when some self-appointed guardian of time asks what you did this summer: “As little as possible.”