I HAVE A cause to promote, but I’m not asking you to sign a petition, lobby your local member of parliament or take to the streets in a procession of orderly outrage. I don’t want you to do anything, because what I want to take action against is taking action itself.
I am proposing a National Day of Not Doing Much.
This would mean no work and shopping, obviously, but also no hobbies, no catching up with housework, no chit-chatting with friends and definitely no earnest placard-waving. What we truly lack in our lives is the time and space for quiet reflection. A day of Not Doing Much would represent a rare chance to think deeply about what is happening in our world, who we are, who we want to be and what kind of future we are facing.
My reasoning is simple: everyone has been too busy to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. At a personal level, how many of us are juggling deadlines but neglecting our health? Still smoking, or drinking too much, while promising to give up ‘later’? Distracting ourselves from feelings of grief, loneliness or spiritual malaise by chasing short-term goals and achievements?
After decades in the workforce, busyness becomes a way of life. The need to be constantly productive even prevents us from questioning if we’re heading in the right direction in the first place. We can find ourselves not sure exactly where we are going, but, gee, aren’t we getting there quickly? A National Day of Not Doing Much would be a holiday, a compulsory reprieve, from this compulsion to move, move, move.
At a collective level, some of the problems we face are extraordinarily complex, requiring deep thought just to calculate the costs and benefits. Climate change is the best example. The costs of reducing emissions can be understood instantly even by the busiest person – “I’m not paying more for electricity!” – but the longer-term benefits, not to mention the ethical considerations, require more contemplation and more time. When consequences will last millennia, decisions demand more than snap judgements.
Our National Day won’t be passive – far from it. In a society of busybodies, inactivity is mutinous. Can you imagine the stunned faces of our political leaders when a million people decide to go on strike not only from working and participating in the marketplace, but also from the usual methods of showing their discontent – the protests and petitions that are so routinely dismissed? Imagine their darting eyes, waiting for something to happen. The stillness would be captivating, like a sudden silence in a piece of music.
A riveting pause.
But, of course, politicians should also take part. If anyone needs a moment of quiet reflection, it’s the people in power who make decisions that affect the lives of millions. With their relentless schedules, how are politicians supposed to find time to think? No wonder the major parties appear to have multiple personality disorder, careening from one policy-for-the-moment to another and straying from their founding values.
This day of silence and rest could become the most important one in people’s lives. I can picture Australians sitting in their homes or gardens, thinking about things they have been putting off for years. I see an old man shuddering with grief as the pain of losing his wife finally catches up to him. An office worker looking for the first time at a fern outside her kitchen window, one eyebrow raised in surprise. A woman sitting in an empty bedroom deciding, with an oddly sentimental smile, that she should divorce her husband after all. Friends staring into each other’s eyes and feeling something beyond friendship.
It could be a day of awakenings, of turning points. Or simply a day to live in the present, free from the pain of the past and anxiety about the future. A moment’s grace for us all.
I’m not proposing this to be smart or deliberately contrarian. I actually believe the world would be a better place if we could all spend just a little more time thinking instead of acting. A National Day of Not Doing Much is a small step towards that end. It could be a kind of secular Sabbath for everyone. Please join me.
First published in The Big Issue.