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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Column: Doing nothing

With summer vacation coming up, my life is about to lose some structure. I won’t have class, or homework, or a weekly column, or have to go grocery shopping. Until I find a job, I will mostly be doing things I want to do, like reading and watching TV. Yet when I’m asked by one of my friends what I’m doing or plan on doing, what will my answer be? Nothing. I will say I’m doing nothing.

Of course, even when you’re doing nothing you’re doing something. Outside of mundane autonomic functions, you’re still watching TV, surfing the web, listening to music, etc. Maybe you’re just sitting there meditating. But rarely do we admit to doing any of those things. Why? Because doing nothing is the last acceptable form of boredom.

When we say we’re doing nothing, we’re admitting to the idea of boredom. We may not actually be bored, but what we’re doing may be seen as boring to someone else. And we can’t have our friends think we’re boring, can we? They’d snicker at our boxed-in boring lives of inactivity as they pack their suitcase full of fun and leave us for more exciting pastures.

We all know how ridiculous that sounds. If you have friends that would leave the second they perceive you as boring then they need to lower their standards and wean themselves off adrenaline. Is it more likely we don’t say anything because what we’re currently doing is obviously not the point of the conversation? Probably. But let’s set up another scenario.

You and your friends are talking — maybe it’s in person, maybe via group text or chat. The topic of discussion: what you’re going to do later that day. At first, no one offers any suggestions, just a variation of the phrase “I dunno.” Then, frustrations start leaking out and someone says something along the lines of “Let’s just do something, I don’t care what it is.” This is followed by a few meek suggestions — maybe bowling or card games or Monopoly. These are all rejected, probably by the same person that didn’t care what the group decided on doing. After that, more “I dunno” statements follow.

Eventually, nothing is decided on and plans are scrapped. If you’re texting, it ends with “We’ll figure out something tomorrow.” If this conversation happened in person, you all continue doing whatever you were doing before. Then people will slowly head home to avoid the boredom that started collecting like dust on everybody’s heads.

This situation has occurred with slight variation since Adam told Eve climbing trees and talking to snakes was stupid. What’s happening here?

We live our lives through this prism of “no regrets,” so we live looking backward on what we’ve done and oftentimes already looking backward on what we’re about to do. If our eyes of the future think we’ll regret doing something, that idea is shut down. In these situations, there’s this fear that what we choose to do will be boring so we choose to do nothing instead. It’s better to not try than to fail.

You want to play poker tonight? C’mon man, live a little.

But why choose to do nothing, the most boring thing possible? Because it’s not just about what we did but where what we did took place. Playing card games at my house isn’t exciting. But playing those same games at a bar? Now that sounds like a story I want to hear.

We need plans, we need a story, we need to go out and immerse ourselves into the more exciting world. We think our lives need to be perceived as entertaining at all times so we work on making that perception a reality. Doing nothing is accepted because it sounds like it wasn’t a choice. We would never choose to be boring; there’s just nothing better to do.

That’s where we’re wrong. Something is always better than nothing; we just need to change our definitions and expectations. Not every night can be spent doing things worthy of a mention in the tabloids or emulated in a song or movie. But every night can be spent doing something. Next time you and your buddies get together, don’t let plans dissipate. Don’t let yourself do nothing. C’mon man, live a little.

NOLAN SHELDON can be reached at nosheldon@ucdavis.edu.

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