Fly on the Wall—Joyful Sloth and Indolence

Why Finding The Time May Not Be The Answer to Our Study Woes

The post-punk Marxist band Gang of Four once sang, with plaintive aplomb in the face of the mixed results of industrial job creation, “please send me evenings and weekends”.  We at AU might relate to this sentiment; the gift we purchase for our futures selves by furthering our education can arrive with attendant difficulties of time management.  School seeps into places in our life we didn’t even know we had!  A wish for more leisure time arises as a sentiment at AU whenever our studies jostle in a space/time continuum with the rest of our life.  The good news, happily, is that twenty minutes of inspired study can equal a whole hour of insipid effort!

To Rest And Rejuvenate Means What Those Words Say

Maybe it was in a dream that I heard that fortune cookie aphorism about inspired time.  I don’t remember.  Yet, wherever the source, it taps into something essential about our human condition: we tend towards laziness if given half a chance.  And often doing nothing, like scrolling social media newsfeeds or half-heartedly watching TV, feels like doing something.  Rarely did the twain meet until we met the ominous truth that there is always a new assignment for us to do at AU.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke pointedly, and perhaps with a touch of humour, about the basic nature of human productive proclivities:

“The extent to which man (sic) is lazy is inconceivable.  One would say that he lives only to sleep, to vegetate, to remain immobile.  He can barely resolve to bestir himself enough to avoid dying of hunger” (Rousseau in Derrida, P.  414).  Well hey, who hasn’t felt so tired and lazy that they could just wilt into a coma rather than crack the E-books? Like leading ourselves down a garden of Eden trail without even knowing we had, our “delicious indolence” meets a new regime borne of our socialized desire to better ourselves.  To learn is to realize our lack and our failures in the past; we have to be pretty humble to realize that our spare time is now potentially the property of our leaner, meaner, academic minds.

Rousseau claims that “if one looks carefully, one would see that…it is in order to achieve repose that each works.  It is laziness again that makes us hard-working” (415).  Even if one hasn’t wiled away many a slothful weekend afternoon listening to Stuart Mclean’s Vinyl Cafe, only to learn that the presenter died before reaching a ripe old age, to realize that nothing is certain in life.  Even folksy sweetness and the best of intentions doesn’t guarantee success.  If you’ve ever thought you loved a research topic (or a whole academic discipline) only to hit a wall, you know what I mean.  What matters is less the answers we think we had as the question we learn to ask; and questioning drives us on in our studies.  We check our lazy bones at the door when we embark on our AU journey.

Mistaking Laziness for Potential

Rousseau belies his epoch, the 1700s, by noting the timeless origins of human consciousness and the mystery of why humans ever ceased to just sort of live in the moment in their spare time.  Over eons, somehow, life became busy and complicated akin to how we suddenly find our life space filled with academic concerns.  “Supposing perpetual spring on earth; supposing everywhere water, livestock, and pasture; and supposing men leaving the hands of nature, once dispersed in all this, I cannot imagine how they would ever have renounced their primitive liberty, to impose upon themselves unnecessarily the slavery, the labors and the miseries inseparable from the social state” (279).  Our minds reading and learning at AU get that way by using whatever tools are at hand.  If all the world’s a hammer, says the phrase, then everything’s a nail.  Well to us, our free time is a chance to grow our best scholarly selves.

Rousseau suggests that while indolence may be our natural and original state it is this same primordial essence that somehow provides space for creative expression.  Yet, this impetus towards production appears to arise from sociability rather than isolation, acculturation rather than contemplation.  And here is where AU lets us get the best of ourselves in a good way: we can discover new and more authentic selves by learning to learn at our own pace and in regions of the mind that transcend our geographic and intellectual context.

Civilized in a Good Way?

As recorded history states, most human civilization embarked on the creation of city settlements (though many very recently) and with this shift in lifestyle came a change in all that made us human.  Delicious sloth was replaced by the urge to work, work, work! And here we are brought back to our lives at AU; if we feel like our studies are a struggle then we may be looking at the whole enterprise backwards.  Education is supposed to better all parts of us, not only our CV and future (if we have one!) learning potential.  Rousseau describes this slippery slope of intentions where a desire for betterment can lead to a life in harness:  “in the distance I hear the joyous cries of a senseless multitude; I see the building of palaces and cities; I see the birth of the arts, laws, commerce; I see peoples forming, expanding and dissolving, following each other like ocean waves; I see men gathered together at a few dwelling places of mutual development, turning the rest of the world into a hideous desert…” (279).  He’s not always an optimist, Rousseau, yet this trait lets him reveal a truth of our academic life: we aren’t here to be miserable, we’re here at AU to flourish!

So to truly embrace our better selves we are well-advised to remember that inspiration is what drives us forward.  If twenty minutes is all the gusto we have for studying some days then so be it.  Better to be the wheel than to be ground under by its incessant churning: that’s what makes individualized study special, we learn to be self-starters.  Because in the end, all of our life and indeed life as we know it, can be washed away in a moment.  No one wakes up dead and wishes they’d have forced themselves into more study drudgery.  So when you’re feeling lazy, maybe just take refuge for awhile in the pure joy of being idle.  After all, it’s our own best selves that domesticate our lesser impulses.  And a guilty rest is almost like no rest at all.

Rousseau, J.J.  (1781).  in Derrida, J.  (1967/2016).  Of Grammatology.  (Trans.  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.
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