Faith seeking understanding #055: In Praise of Wasting Time (a review)

Faith seeking understanding, my personal journey towards a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God, the cosmos, humanity and myself through thoughts, words and (occasionally) images, is a series of [hopefully] daily reflections I’m writing with the purpose of publishing something on a regular basis for others to read, either here, at joncarllewis.com or among my writings at Medium.com.

Wasting time is a skill I consider myself to be particularly good at, so I was amused to see the title of Alan Lightman’s little book: In Praise of Wasting Time. It’s a short read with charming illustrations and I recommend it, whether you consider yourself good at wasting time or not.

I almost didn’t read the work; I kept walking past it at the library, smiling smugly to myself, convinced for a while that it couldn’t teach me anything new. Conversely, I feared that if it could teach me new ways of wasting time, I wasn’t sure that would be a good thing. Fortunately, curiosity compelled me to bring it home. I read the whole thing in two sittings, and I’m glad I did.

What I liked most about the book—aside from it’s evocative yet streamlined prose that seldom calls attention to itself—was its exploration of the benefits of unstructured and unscheduled time. He is a big fan of solitude and sees it as essential to the creative life. He echoes my heart’s desire when he writes of artists and other creative types: “One thing all these people share is an embrace of solitude. Not that these are unsociable people. But they practice their craft in solitude. They draw strength from being alone while they create or explore new worlds. They need that aloneness. They have developed the habit of mind to accept and seek out that aloneness. Sometimes they must push back against their society to get what they need.” (p. 57)

Lightman (most of the time) seems optimistic that even in the midst of our plugged-in culture one can carve out this space by developing a “habit of mind.” He writes: “But one does not have to be a creative genius to develop this habit of mind. One needs only the desire and willpower to unplug from the grid, to separate from the rush and the heave. It is the nurturing of one’s inner spirit, that whispering voice. It is the celebration of privacy and solitude. It is the willingness to follow one’s own thoughts. It is the indulgence of play and unscheduled time.” (p. 56)

The only thing I didn’t like was that Lightman spends way too much time admiring the problem of how our accelerated, productivity-oriented culture has robbed us of the time and space necessary to replenish our mental and creative reserves. Early on he writes about his experience of getting a smartphone: “And so it goes. Against my will, knowing all the dangers, I have been sucked into the maelstrom. I have heard the song of the Sirens and succumbed. I should have tied myself to the mast.” (p. 20) I feel his pain, but I can read about this everywhere I turn. Furthermore, I experience this myself and don’t like to be reminded of it. Nevertheless, he tries too hard to convince us that we have a problem when what I really enjoyed was the time he spent exploring different ways to carve out “down time” for himself and his family.

What I loved about In Praise of Wasting Time is that it effectively absolves me of the guilt I have occasionally felt around my hunger for solitude and my “indulgence” in practices such as lying on my day bed half-awake watching my thoughts riff on the ideas coming across over the radio. There are days like today where one might ask what I have produced, and I might only be able to answer that I was able to let my mind wander and figure out possible solutions to some creative or personal problem. But Lightman’s book not only let’s me know that it is a good thing to indulge in these non-pursuits, it is essential to my accomplishing the work I hope to accomplish in the world.

So, again, I recommend In Praise of Wasting Time. Published by Simon and Schuster as a TED Book, it is designed to accompany Alan Lightman’s TED Talk (which I believe is yet to be published at Ted.com). I can’t wait to hear the talk. But for now we have this clear, mostly concise book. May it ease your mind as it has eased mine.

Thank you for your time and attention.
I’d love to know your thoughts on what you’ve read.
Please comment, below, or email me at joncarllewis@gmail.com.
May God richly bless you on your journey.

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Faith seeking understanding #055: In Praise of Wasting Time (a review)

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