The violence of inaction

I have been listening to a podcast by a guy named Jocko. The Jocko Podcast covers a variety of topics relating to personal growth and leadership, ranging from American military history, to the benefits of jiu jitsu, to how to help a friend veering down a self-destructive path. He peppers his discussions with what he has learned from his own experiences as a Navy SEAL team leader.

Jocko’s sheer force of will is inspiring. He’s a SEAL, after all. The values he espouses are those of methodical preparation and action, of drive and accomplishment. He speaks of the value of the “violence of action,” which in military terms means using speed, strength, surprise, and aggression to achieve total dominance against your enemy.

It’s all very American. Like the Nike slogan, “Just do it,” we are a nation of doers. We value industry – as in, industriousness. Busy-ness. Movement forward in any fashion. Movement forward just to stay still in our constant battle with entropy.

The pervasive message in our culture is that if you aren’t doing something, you are slowly decaying and dying. If you are doing something, you are moving forward.

The natural conclusion is the path to success is being busy. At least, for most of my life, I have happily accepted this interpretation. This kind of perpetual “violence of action” is what drove me for the last 2 decades, starting with medical school. Medical students don’t think a lot, to be honest. We memorize a lot of stuff and then we DO. In fact, there is a motto we use: “See one, do one, teach one.” This doesn’t leave much room for introspection or analysis.

I am not saying medicine is not full of thought and scientific inquiry and navel-gazing moments. It is. Just watch House or Gray’s Anatomy. There is enough drama and emotion to fill at least 3 prime time TV slots any given week.

However, in reality, in the training period and beyond, there is not a lot of sitting around and mulling things over. Staying still in an emotional or physical space is anathema. Someone might die! You might get emotional and cry! There is a very tight schedule of pushing facts into your brain at a rapid pace. There is an equally tight schedule of examining, testing, charting, and moving on to the next thing.

I ask my husband about this, given that he is a master of doing nothing. Sometimes he just sits or lies down on the couch. Doing nothing. Apparently thinking nothing, too, since when I ask him what he is thinking while he is doing nothing he says, “Oh nothing.”

I am pretty harsh in my judgement of this activity. In our world, if you are not acting or doing or even thinking something, you are at best lazy, at worst morally corrupt. There are times in my life I have tried SO HARD to avoid being not busy. I think I am not alone in this, and this may be the reason cat videos have proliferated in the last few years (also, cats are pretty entertaining). A quick google search of the word “inaction” yields a bunch of helpful memes like: “Nothing can be gained from inaction,” or “Inaction breeds doubt and fear.” There are also many graphics pinning “action” against “lazy,” “failure,” and “powerless.”

But lately, the value of this perpetual “action” has become less clear to me. It is incrementally less satisfying as I get older, and as I observe the people around me also engaged in a never-ending to-do list. When I left academic medicine, I thought I would have more time to sit around and do nothing. It turns out, I just end up stuffing my days with more “action”: vacuuming, grocery shopping, laundry.

This drove me to look for an alternative to Jocko, although I still need his accusatory rant to get me to the gym in the morning. I started to read No Time to Spare, by Ursula K. Le Guin, a collection of her blog posts, and Bored and Brilliant, by Manoush Zomorodi. Le Guin with her musings about aging and cats, and Zomorodi with her data-driven insights into how the mind works, write about the advantages of stillness, the “brilliance” boredom can bring.

They ask, or rather they state: What if there is value to just … NOT DOING ANYTHING AT ALL.

In her book, Zomorodi actually talks about the scientific evidence that being bored—of not being perpetually occupied with crossing things off your to-do list or rushing from one event to another—can lead to better and more efficient brain function, even brilliant insights. LeGuin laments the uber-scheduled youth of America today, and how this leaves them (and their parents!) no time to know themselves, much less other people.

It does make me wonder if we are stunting our own creative growth by being in a constant state of action. Perhaps doing nothing can be even more challenging than working your way through a to-do list.

So, take a moment. Schedule into your iCalendar or your Filofax or your Google calendar 10 minutes to just sit. Stare at a wall. Walk down the street. Be as violent in your inaction as you are in your accomplishing things all day. You might be surprised with what inspiration you find.

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