I was in Haas the other day, and I was feeling stressed. I couldn’t come up with any ideas for an essay I had been assigned, and a nearby grad student was basically taunting me. He was toiling away on some work of genius; his key- strokes shook the earth. I could practically hear the words as he wrote them: Yes! Okay! Here we go! Next sentence! I am an intelligent man!
I stared out the window that looks down Chapel Street. I got some vague idea that I would write an essay that used the window as an object lesson—it could say something about cropping, about the tacit act of destruction that the artist must perform in order to create—but then I thought: nope. So I just watched the buses come groaning up Cha- pel Street for a few minutes. It was—let’s see, what’s a good word for it? It was nice.
This is the part where you worry that yet another Yale student who almost definitely has some undiagnosed form of mania is about to tell you that your problems will evapo- rate if you just stop being such a silly goose and smell the roses! Well, I’m going to try not to do that (my mania notwithstanding). I hate being told to relax. It stresses me out. One time my sister and I got into a fight about whether or not we were in Boston when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series (we absolutely were not) and I got sort of im- passioned and she told me to calm down and I said “I AM FUCKING CALM. YOU CALM DOWN,” and she said “NO, YOU!” and the next thing I knew I was telling her I didn’t want to be her brother anymore and we haven’t spoken since. Laura, if you’re reading this—I’m sorry. I hope that someday we’ll be able to pick up the pieces.
So, no, I don’t think it’s productive to just tell ourselves to relax. When I say that we’re bad at doing nothing, I don’t mean that we’re bad at getting away from our work. We’re actually not too shabby at that. Woads, for example. The 30 people in my art history class who spend all 75 minutes of lecture on Facebook. My friend who attempted to watch the entirety of House of Cards in one sitting in spite of an impending paper assignment.
But there’s a difference between putting aside your schoolwork and doing nothing. Somehow we’ve conflated the two. When people asked me what I did over break, I told them “nothing.” What I really meant was that I watched the first three seasons of The Office for the eighth time in my life and worked really hard at revitalizing my Twitter account. “What a load of semantic codswallop!” you say. Okay, maybe. Bu the distinction, however petty, points to a bigger problem.
No one stares into space anymore. Whenever we want to blow off work, we just whip out our phones or open a new tab in our browser. We stalk our old high school English teacher on Facebook, or watch instructional videos on the art of bonsai, or look at pictures of goats dressed up as Miley Cyrus. This feels like doing nothing, because we have it in our heads that one true mode of activity is productivity: anything we do that fails to yield a tangible result doesn’t count.
But when you zone out in front of your laptop for an hour, you aren’t really being inactive. The two-dimension- al screen forces you into a purely mental landscape: you plug in your headphones, you click around a user-inter- face that fits your cognitive processes like a latex glove, you find a great tumblr with pictures of cats and machine guns, and suddenly you’re deep inside of your head. And it isn’t all that relaxing in there. There’s something frenetic about rifling through page after page of the infinite Inter- net in search of two seconds of entertainment. The way I tore through my middle school crush’s Instagram account in fifteen minutes can only be described as crazed. Even binge watching is weirdly type-A—you should’ve seen the fire in my friend’s eyes when he announced, “I am literally going to watch all of House of Cards right now. ALL OF IT. RIGHT NOW.”
There is something to be said about studying the ceiling, about taking a few seconds to just be a thing that exists in the world. Whenever I clap my laptop shut and confront the basic stuffness of life—the wood of my desk, the light hitting the floor, that bizarre snorting sound the girl across from me is making—I feel centered, like I might be finally getting a grip. I’ve been trying to do it more lately, if only in very short bursts. It’s easy, and I think it’s helping my sanity.
The best part is that, unlike relaxing, forcing yourself to do nothing is actually possible, and pretty easy at that. Just pick a window or a point on the far wall—try to avoid someone’s face—and gawk. Having trouble?
Here, I’ll show you: