“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestry. It is the democracy of the dead.“G. K. Chesterton
Christmas Day is filled with a multitude of nostalgic sensory triggers; sights, tastes, and scents all bringing to mind childhood and the years past. It’s a time to celebrate abundance by giving to others, to celebrate the contrasts of life: light and dark, heat and cold, fire and snow. The modern lead up to the day reaches a fever pitch in the form of a race of consumerism to meet the deadline of the 25th. Christmas cards, gifts, parties, and annual observances punctuate the weeks. Christmas Day itself may be frantic or relaxing but in 24 hours it comes to a close. On December 26th it’s not uncommon to see trees out front of houses and lights being taken down.
The Judeo-Christian heritage emphasizes important feast days with a period of celebration, rather than just a single day. The further down the tree of orthodoxy you go, the more upheld the observance is. The octave, or eight days, is the high point of celebration for a feast like Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox or Byzantine traditions. This is paralleled in Judaism with the timeline of the Hanukkah festival. Another example of prolonged celebration is in India, where weddings are often celebrated as multi-day occasions and guests stay overnight to continue festivities the next day. However, in America a multi-day celebration sounds as foreign as a siesta. It is not optimized or efficient, which is intended. Perhaps as Americans we have much to learn about rest from societies who have endured the test of time.
By continuing on with life after only a single day of celebration are we missing the deeply-human need of recreation? Consider that the word recreation means the creation of something new, again. This is only born from rest and idle time.
With a moment of idle time, what comes from you? Is it the desire to consume? (Social media, reading, eating.) Or a desire to produce? (Artwork, writing, cooking.) It may be a combination of the two. Idle space allows for both education and trial and error. Consciousness is a flashlight, to be shined at a single object, a moment at a time. Idle time allows consciousness to follow curiosity.
Nassim Taleb has said many of his books have written themselves. He’s an advocate for keeping an uncluttered schedule on a daily basis, including not setting an alarm clock. He’s spend decades reading and thinking, and when he writes, a depth of experience pours out in his prose and (sometimes eccentric) opinions. He allows himself the space to disconnect from noise on his long walks, allowing for the violent collision of new ideas. Are we not the amalgamation of our influences?
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to cultivate thought, in a gloriously unproductive way, is to separate yourself from the noise. Face the silence, experience boredom. In a busy world filled with digital noise, the silence will not find you easily. You may need to create the space to recreate.
This can achieved through environment design. Is your living room seating area set up to face a large screen? (Your waking hours will be spent watching the screen.) If your space is predisposed to a certain activity, the path of least resistance, and habit, may win over the light of your consciousness. The idle moments allow for presence to surroundings and a disconnect of the minutiae of the day. Is this not closer to a most fulfilling existence?
The Ten Commandments may seem trivial to some but look deeper and you’ll see the distilled human experience, providing an operative structure for our interactions with others and ourselves. Across time and culture, the rules show themselves in similar form. Observing rest on the sabbath is of primary important of the human condition to make the list. Extended inobservance of the law, as with any other violation of the list, leads to desperate consequences.
The smartphone has taken a wrecking ball to the work-life divide, which was then exacerbated by the pandemic’s work-from-home mandate. Walking out of the office today is not the same as it was twenty years ago. Whether on vacation or home on a weeknight, a healthy disconnect is essential. Time off affords an individual the mental space needed to consider novel approaches or new ideas. It may be in the disconnect that the true work is done.
My wife often laughs at me for how I prepare for a public presentation. I wrote my brother’s best man speech on a napkin only moments before. (Of course, I had been considering the subject since the day he asked me to be his best man.) The cocktail napkin, which is also the apocryphal source of the first Harry Potter book, is less about the immediacy and more about the under-the-surface iceberg of thought which lead to its breach at sea level.
To allow for free space and a disconnect from the noise is to allow the subconscious to chew, to gnaw, on the problem and present possible solutions. Either as an unconscious dream or lucid lightbulb moment, the solutions are found when the mind disconnects from the task at hand. This may be the phenomenon powering the elusive “shower thought”. To fill every day with noise is to shut out this type of revelation — a trade off with an unknown magnitude of impact. Downtime allows for increased mental acuity and decision making when it’s time to plug back in.
Perhaps the days following Christmas are intended for the contemplation appropriate to the season; a roadmap for idle time and rest. The Christmas season should be less of the physical and more about the intangible; the time taken to absorb the embedded meaning of rest. Surrounded by the darkest days of winter, the season is a reminder of the coming spring and the hope of the future.
Secure for yourself idle time. What will you do with it?