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The Art of Not Doing

the art of not doing

by Anne Basye

When I turned 50, a friend asked me what I’d like from life in the years to come.

I’d like to strive less, I said. How she laughed! She knew that when it came to striving, I was a champion, armed with a world-class to-do list.

Shortly after the alarm rang in the morning, action items started elbowing their way into my mind. A note under the coffee pot detailed early-morning calls and meetings. On the desk sat a comprehensive list of birthdays to remember, bills to pay, deadlines to meet. Post-it notes guided me through trips to the grocery store.

Whatever needed remembering before bed went onto that scrap of paper by the coffee pot . . . and another day of do, do, do would skid to a close. If this sounds familiar, it’s because as North Americans, you and I share an intense belief in the virtue of productivity. How can we help it, when aphorisms from Benjamin Franklin to Nike goad us on? “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” “Just do it!” Striving, achieving, and being productive are tenets of our national civil religion. You can hear its echo in our faith lives too. (God’s work, our hands!) Constant doing is easy to measure, and it can make us feel good.

You know that little jolt of satisfaction that comes from meeting a deadline? Some days I just couldn't get enough—even when my list was absolutely overwhelming me.

My wish to lay it all aside came shortly after a friend responded to my exhaustive, exhausted litany of commitments with, “Anne, if you want your gravestone to say “She got it all done,” I’ll support that. But might there be another way?”

Anne Basye practices doing less in rural Mount Vernon, Wash.

A Prayer for Doing Less
May we be still, God.
Instead of doing, doing, doing, may we just be,
open to You,
open to loved ones, open to strangers,
ready to listen with hearts uncluttered by tasks and anxieties,
ready to accept others as gift, not instrument, ready to root our actions in relationship
with You and your children around us.

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