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Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

I’m on vacation right now. It’s an odd sensation. It’s not really a vacation in the sense that there is work to be done. After all, as an academic and a student and a writer, there is always something that can be done. I have a stack of books that must be read by the end of the summer, and I have three books that need to be read pretty much as quickly as possible (at the very latest by the second week of July, which is just around the corner). And you know, there’s always something. I’ve got a “To Do” list that would fill the rest of the week, easy. So once those books are done, I’m still not “done.”

But I’m braindead. 

Last week was devoted to errands and cleaning and odds and ends, and the weekend was for lying about, and then yesterday was supposed to be the day I picked up book #1.

But I didn’t.

And now it’s almost noon on Tuesday, and I’ve glanced at the books, I’ve eyed the pile of articles, but nothing has happened.

This is the struggle I wage every time I’m on vacation. I recognize, on a rational level, the importance of doing nothing, but I still feel bad about it.

For children, who crave steady stimulation, boredom can feel like a prison of emptiness, the only recourse a particularly inventive game or a pillow fort. But as adults, boredom is tied directly to self-esteem, and the stakes exponentially higher. British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips writes, “Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.”

My issue is not boredom. I am very good at entertaining myself, with or without pillow forts. But my issue is that I link “time well spent” to productivity and accomplishment. Even while I know that boredom is essential to the development process, much like doing nothing is essential to creativity.

But acknowledging that on a conscious level does not do much to help me in the moment. After all, who we are is tied to what we do. Accomplishment is tied directly to production. What we produce determines our value. “What did you do today?” is the default question. Not “what did you think about?” or “what did you look at?” but “what did you do?” Because when you do nothing, you are nothing. There is, therefore, nothing to report.

So my usual workaround is to allot time for nothing. I pencil it in. That way I know it is finite, and I can indulge, guilt-free. Last weekend, for instance, was for doing nothing. It was for entertaining and socializing and sitting poolside and producing nothing of “value.” But now it’s a new week, and time is whizzing by, and an unproductive hour is a lost hour. 

I should be working. I should be using my time wisely. I should not be wasting this valuable opportunity. And yet, I just want to sit and listen. Which is fine and good and therapeutic and necessary, but the Freud won’t read itself.