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In tiny news items inspiring ideas may lurk. Last week, for example, it was reported in the U.S. state of Minnesota that the wife of Gov. Jesse (“The Body”) Ventura was ill and had been told by her doctor “to do nothing for a month.” The nature of Ms. Ventura’s illness was not disclosed, although the governor himself said that she was under stress from working two jobs. We certainly wish her a speedy recovery, but, in the meantime, we have been unable to get that magical phrase “do nothing” out of our heads. We wish our doctor would tell us to do nothing for a month. He has never told us anything remotely as sensible. We complain of fatigue; he recommends iron. We show up in his office coughing and feverish, hoping to be told to stay home in bed and have someone bring us orange juice. Never mind a month; a day would do. But he prescribes some placebo and sends us straight back to work. Clearly, the Minnesota medical profession has much to teach the world.

Let us kick back for a minute and think about that command, so brilliantly brief, so persuasively simple. What does it mean exactly? What do we suppose Ms. Ventura is doing this month? Oops, we forgot: nothing. But how does one “do” nothing? Sleep, of course, without the tyranny of the alarm clock and the workaholics’ unwritten rule against napping. But that gets boring after a while. Eat and drink, yes; but those activities, too, have built-in end points. Sit around and watch television? In the daytime, especially, that is just a synonym for sleeping, and the same limitations apply.

Perhaps — and this is doubtless what Ms. Ventura’s doctor meant — doing nothing is best interpreted as doing only those things that you enjoy and find relaxing. All kinds of activities qualify, depending on your tastes: reading, gardening, bird-
watching, cooking, tooling about on the Internet, shopping, sailing, fixing broken stuff, meeting similarly idle friends (if there are any about) for a cup of coffee. The problem is, if you get even vaguely analytical about it, all these things actually count as “doing something.” All are diversions, guaranteed to engage, distract and entertain. None entails the emptying of the mind that is the minimum requirement for dallying with nothingness. Even listening to music intelligently takes one’s mind off the void. Doing nothing, it seems, may prove to be quite hard work.

In fact, there are few things in human life that are harder, as the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal pointed out long ago: “When a soldier or a laborer complains of his hard life, try giving him nothing to do.” Men are probably better at it than women. You don’t see many women among Tokyo’s army of urban fishermen, perched on their little stools for hours around park ponds, mindlessly dangling their bait before inedible fish. Teenagers of either gender have a modest talent for it too. Pascal may have stated that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room, but either he forgot his own youth or youths were a lot different in 17th-century France. A modern teenager has no problem lying on his (or her) bed for a whole afternoon, simply staring at the ceiling. (All right, not quietly, although the mandatory musical accompaniment is more likely to kill off brain cells than divert them).

In general, however, human beings are uncomfortable with the introspection that unrelieved idleness breeds. Hence the dread, and the cruel genius, of solitary captivity without occupation. Hence, too, the horrified fascination provoked by the story of a Frenchman named Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered “locked-in syndrome” after a massive stroke in 1995 and published a best-selling book about it before he died the following year. In the book, which he dictated by blinking in code with his left eye (the only part of his body he could move), Bauby chronicled a “do-nothing” existence in which that innocent daydream had become a living nightmare. It is safe to say that few of us could endure such a life without losing our grip on sanity, let alone bring to it Bauby’s extraordinary courage and humor.

If these reflections lie at the far, dark end of the spectrum of possibilities with which we began, it just shows the danger of leaving people alone for a few hours with nothing to do but pick apart a minor news item. Still, the moral is inescapable: Be careful what you wish for; you might get it. Just ask Ms. Ventura three weeks from now.

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