On being lazy

I imagine that we were all given several labels as children that were used to define us. We were smart, funny, responsible, rebellious, shy, or the opposites… on and on. One of the labels I received as a child was that I was lazy. I remember always being frustrated, feeling like I eventually would have gotten around to getting something done if folks had given me a bit more time.

It wasn’t until I was in my first professional job out of college that I began to challenge this label. All of the sudden I took a look at myself and how hard I was working. It was at that moment that I discarded the label.

And yet, as is the case with most of these things, there was some truth to it.

The interesting thing is, from the beginning there were very clear signs that showed it was way more complicated than that I was lazy. For example, the one comment that ALWAYS showed up on my report card was that I worked too fast and made mistakes. Upon reflection these many years later, I see that I just had different priorities than the adults in my life wanted to see from me. I found most of the things I was asked to do boring and tedious and wanted them out of the way so I could have time for what I really wanted to do…which was think, question, talk, relax.

In this culture that is so committed to action, I was always looking for time for contemplation. Many people over the years have asked me how I managed to escape the cult of the right-wing christian fundamentalism in which I was raised. The answer to that question (at least as far as I’ve been able to find it), is at least partly tied to this. So I continue to learn to embrace that “laziness” in me…its been a good friend so far.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Gertrude Stein:

It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.

There isn’t much that is reviled in this culture more than “doing nothing.” But I think its a discipline that we all need to embrace more often – or  at least put it into the mix of the balance in our lives. I think we all know that amidst all the consumption and greed, it is the constant frenetic pace of action that distracts us from  compassion and the realities that our world is facing. As with so many other things, it is our fear of what we might find in the quiet solitude of contemplation that drives the frenetic pace. But as geomoo put so beautifully in his essay on Attention God

At the magic moments, I see the infinity of human potential.  As teacher, I offer the option to let go of the compulsive thoughts, the external demands (largely imagined), and to go for what is really wanted.  NO.  I mean what is really, really wanted.  The heart’s yearning.

It is in those moments of quietness that we find our hearts and our wisdom; that we learn, as Nightprowlkitty says, to respond instead of react. And it seems obvious to me that a precursor to “paying attention” is slowing down and taking the time to quietly ponder ourselves and the world around us. Of course “yelling louder” and taking action are also important. But all of that must be grounded in the quiet moments of awareness.

I’ll leave you with the words of The Eagles on all this…Learn to be Still.

There are so many contridictions

In all these messages we send

(we keep asking)

How do I get out of here

Where do I fit in?

Though the world is torn and shaken

Even if your heart is breakin’

It’s waiting for you to awaken

And someday you will-

Learn to be still

Learn to be still.


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  1. on being “lazy,” or any of the other childhood labels you were given and re-claimed in a new way.

    In the meantime, here’s another great song from Carly Simon, “Quiet Evening”

    Take this night, for the sake of your soul.

  2. … interesting juxtaposition … just finished reading Magnifico’s disturbing essay.

    And then this one.

    Brain exploded!  lol

    And yet there is indeed a connection.

    There have been so many outrages that people of conscience have had to suffer these past 8 years.  I know many times I have run about like a chicken with its head cut off when I encounter these horrible stories, and of course that has never gotten me anywhere, for all my movement.

    Lazy.  Yeah, I’ve been called lazy a whole lot of times because I like to think and contemplate and such.

    That laziness has helped me, tho.  When I simply stop, just stop, I find my outlook changes and I can confront painful situations without all the hysteria.  Then when it’s time to commit to action, there’s a great deal of energy available for that action.

    As far as this:

    It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.

    If true I would have to say I am a great genius!  LOL

    • kj on May 25, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    to google the quote… 😉

    something about, ‘it is good to look out the window and think; it is better to just look out the window’

    the weekend after 9/11, my husband and i went to the family cabin on the lake.  i got up early, as usual, and went out to sit on the old half-broken dock to watch the sun rise.  took a sweater with me.  i sat there the entire morning, being rocked by the water, did nothing, read nothing, silently staring.  came in for lunch. went back out and sat on the dock again for the entire afternoon and evening. one fisherman came by, i said something like “a good day to be fishing”… he replied, looking at me directly in the eye in that naked way Americans had in those days, “yes, it is.”  i remember putting the sweater back on when the chill of twilight came.

    for a Midwesterner, i’ve spent many, many hours on the edge of water, via rivers, oceans, lakes.  i had never before that day spent an entire day, sunrise to sunset, at that edge.

    i credit that day for a whole lot of internal healing.

    • Edger on May 25, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    If you’re too lazy to put a rec button on your essay, well then, we’ll just have to get after NPK for being lazy too.

    Good morning. Wow, is it ever early outside this morning.

    • Robyn on May 25, 2008 at 5:53 pm

    • geomoo on May 25, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Terrific essay NL.  This really hits a nerve with me.  Although you’re talking about making like Ferdinand, this is a serious topic, crucial to our future.  The puritan work ethic is a bane on our existence.

    We are more in a hurry than we were before we had cars.  We are more busy than before our individual productivity exploded.  Does that make any sense?

    If only we focused our energy into improving the quality of our lives rather than the quantity of our goods, imagine how rich our lives could be.  I think of certain models of hybrid cars which choose to use the electric boost for more power rather than for better mileage.  Bad choice.

    What if we lived in smaller houses with few appliances?  We could be playing with kids more, reading to each other more, taking care of neighbors more, sitting around laughing more.  And none of it is foisted on us by the demands of the world.  It’s all in what we choose to want.

    And here is my chance to confess that on Obama Orange, I’m forever nervous that I’m going to be outed for not being an activist.  I love to sit around doing nothing.  There, I said it.

    I want to say a lot more, but you’ve got it covered well here.  Here I am, preparing to leave in an hour to fly cross-country with my poor kitty cat, but I saw this essay and knew I had to take time to comment.  “Take time.”  Hm.  Who the hell am I taking this time from?

  3. There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew

    Who had so many things which he wanted to do

    That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,

    He couldn’t because of the state he was in.

    He was shipwrecked, and lived on a island for weeks,

    And he wanted a hat, and he wanted some breeks;

    And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hooks

    For the turtles and things which you read of in books.

    And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing

    Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;

    And he thought that to talk to he’d look for, and keep

    (If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.

    Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut

    With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut

    (With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),

    And a very strong lock to keep savages out.

    He began on the fish-hooks, and when he’d begun

    He decided he couldn’t because of the sun.

    So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that

    Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat.

    He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree,

    When he thought, “I’m as hot as a body can be,

    And I’ve nothing to take for my terrible thirst;

    So I’ll look for a spring, and I’ll look for it first.”

    Then he thought as he started, “Oh, dear and oh, dear!

    I’ll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!”

    So he made in his note-book a couple of notes:

    “I must first find some chickens” and “No, I mean goats.”

    He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)

    When he thought, “But I must have boat for escape.

    But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;

    So I’d better sit down and make needles instead.”

    He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,

    That, if this was an island where savages lurked,

    Sitting safe in his hut he’d have nothing to fear,

    Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!

    So he thought of his hut … and he thought of his boat,

    And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,

    And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst) …

    But he never could think which he ought to do first.

    And so in the end he did nothing at all,

    But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.

    And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved –

    He did nothing but bask until he was saved

    AA Milne

    • brobin on May 25, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    I’m just much better at doing in less time the same thing that others drag out for so damned long.

    Getting in trouble is a two pronged situation.  Either you get in trouble for what you did or what you didn’t do.

    I strive to piss people off for the ability to do neither, and do them well   LMAO!!

    Get your own bowl!


  4.  and start with my endless list making, which wears me out before I begin,  I think of that poem. My husband the ‘lazy’ one is way more effective both externally and his perspective and veiw is saner. He is a musician and I think he spends a lot of time letting his songs float through his mind from where ever they come. The quiet space your talking about.  

  5. I was always that kid that “did not live up to my potential” and the implication being that I did not try hard enough.

    I always got mediocre grades but we were subject to reading comprehension tests all the way through school up until the second year of high school and I always scored off the charts. It pissed off my mother and the teachers thought I was lazy.

    I loved reading and my mother was very restrictive with TV but allowed me to get out any books I pleased from the library. When we were assigned “independent study” in hihg school I read the subject matter handed in the work and skipped th rest of the classes.

    On the other hand my math skills were and are so bad that they played with the idea I might have a mild learning disability.

    I liked history and wanted to do well in it so I did attend class but I yawned my way through school. My grades and behavior weren’t bad enough to attract attention. The bad part was that I acquired a habit of being able to figure out exactly what “good enough” entailed and did exactly that.

    Essentially if I am stimulated or intrigued I will fully explore something and strive for excellence just because I “feel like it”. Otherwise, I slide on by with a lot of tasks. I was never really motivated by the idea of beating others or being “number one”. I like competitive things. I just came back from playing tennis and lost but it was fun so who cares?

    So. I guess I am lazy.

  6. time and circumstances permitting, of course.

    A friend once said my sin was sloth but actually that’s my virtue. Rather than work hard I’d prefer to come with some clever way of getting things done that makes my life easier.

    I don’t play chess any more (was never good at the endgame) but I learned there are two ways to look at life: the blunt force method and the graceful. The cool thing about the graceful way is it really does require an overview, which means taking the time to picture how things work together. And thinking about how to reach a solution to a problem can occur at any time, no matter what you’re doing, so I can go to one of the many Twist parties happening around town at the same time I’m working.

    Dancing and thinking, a great combination.

    • robodd on May 25, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    the beats gave poetry was “the slow-down.”

  7. I’ve started to write a comment several times, but I can’t respond adequately in only a few lines to all you’ve said here, and said so well, so I’ll just say thank you!

    • RiaD on May 26, 2008 at 1:52 am

    i’m only to the gertrude stein quote….

    but i just hafta give you this…

    They say I’m lazy but it takes all my time

    Everybody say oh, yeah, oh, yeah

    I keep on going, guess I’ll never know why

    Life’s been good to me so far, yeah, yeah, yeah

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