Sometimes it’s OK to do nothing

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday June 24, 2012

I received an interesting email last week from a reader with the following comment:  “It’s inspiring to read about people who continue to work, volunteer, take care of grand kids and do good things  in their ‘retirement’ years.  But I know there are people who want to do nothing.  I know this is true because I am one of those people.”

And my new friend is not alone.  Opinion surveys of later-life Americans reveal that about one of five (20 percent) want to retire to a life of rest and relaxation – often including lots of golf or tennis, as long as legs, shoulders and elbows permit, or perhaps
messing about in boats or fishing off an old bridge.  And even though social engagement is the healthy alternative for those in later-life, simply enjoying life for what it is is also an alternative.

I remember many years ago when I was part of a team working on a project in Mexico, I was required to learn some Spanish. I didn’t learn as much as I should have, but I did learn to appreciate what my 11th grade Spanish teacher told me: If you are truly to appreciate another’s culture, you must know its language.

The truth of that observation came to me when I learned that the Spanish word for a “business” or “doing business” is negocio. The root word is ocio, which means “idleness,” “spare time,” “leisure time” or “to do nothing.”

So what is business?  A business is the negative or the opposite of doing nothing  – which means “to do something,” “to set up or talk business,” “to make a deal or trade,” or “to work or be employed.”  But literally negocio means “not to do nothing.”  Does this suggest that “doing nothing” is OK?

There are many cultures in the world where “doing nothing” is taken more seriously than it is in America. In the US, we give “doing nothing” a name: we call it a “vacation” – and most of us work at it. In fact, I can’t count the times, especially when our kids were younger, when Mary Sue and I were happy that our vacation was over. On the other hand, North Americans do value the “coffee break.”  I suppose that is a good example of “doing nothing” – just as the English, Australians and other Commonwealth countries break for “morning tea” and again for “afternoon tea”.

But in other cultures, “doing nothing” is a more elevated and honored part of everyday life. In Mexico, it is called siesta. A siesta, of course, is a short nap taken in the early afternoon, typically after lunch. In the past, this practice of relaxation, for many, included going home to spend quiet time with the family.

Ocio – doing nothing – is also, for some, a coveted retirement lifestyle. Though it’s my view that we should keep working in some capacity, keep using out gifts for as long as we are able, I am not totally unsympathetic to the view that there is a time for “doing nothing”– what I call going “off-the-clock” in my book, Reboot!, which is about retiring the concept and practice of retirement.

Ideally, we would go off-the-clock when we no longer desire (or have lost the ability) to be accountable to others. When you go off-the-clock voluntarily, you no longer want to have obligations or have scheduled duties. You want to quit your job. You want to give up your volunteer responsibilities. You want – or need – to reduce the pressures to perform, meet a schedule, be on time, and conform to a “to do” list.

So, unless we die with our boots on (my preferred outcome), fully engaged and doing good work helping others and improving that part of the world we can touch, we will, at some point decide to go off-the-clock and move into an “ocio life.”

When that happens, maybe it’s because we are weary and need to wind down. Perhaps we are frail or disabled. Maybe we are burned out. Maybe we are healthy but have simply reached the point where we have nothing left to give to the world of work and want to retire to…doing nothing, except to enjoy life, giving to our family and friends, experiencing the world, receiving the love of others and confronting the inevitable trials that come with the end-of-life.

The “ocio life” will come to all of us who survive long enough, but when it happens, we should be thankful that we were blessed with the opportunity to work so long, using our gifts in service to others.

The growing number of Americans trying to figure out what to do with their bonus years, reminds me of the dilemma voiced years ago by E.B. White, who said, “I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. It makes it hard to plan the day.”   But whatever we choose, we should remember that “years wrinkle the skin; lack of purpose wrinkles the soul.”

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