The Hard Work of Doing Nothing

I looked at my schedule and read Ed Schwartz’s name. I was surprised. Ed doctored reluctantly and never had much need to. He is 55ish, thin, athletic, and generally quite healthy.

Ed always refused to tell my MA his reason for visit. “Not any of her business” was the usual reason. So, I always went into the room not knowing what I was walking into.

I met him first for a wildland firefighter physical, his post-retirement gig. Not your average primary-care patient. He was proud that he could hike two miles with a 50-lb pack faster than most 20-somethings taking the wildland firefighter physical test.

In that visit, I had learned he had moved to the area from Northern Michigan. He had spent 20 years as a police officer, pensioned out, and then started and sold his own business thereafter. Now, he was partially retired and found odd jobs wherever he could to keep active.

Entering the room, he looked his normal stoic self. He was sitting the chair, upright and rigid. Thin and hard-looking with steel-gray eyes that could be intimidating when he needed them to be.

We began with pleasantries, he had finished his summer season (it was November now) and most of the fall chores on his property and things had started to get slow around the house.

“I’ve already piled all the brush up and now we can’t burn the piles til it snows. I don’t have much to do and have been gettin’ a bit squirrelly”

The reason for the visit finally comes out

With him being around the house more, he and his wife had started fighting. He owned that most of the conflict originated with him.

“If something doesn’t change, she might not put up with me much longer. Y’know, I don’t do great with the shorter days and I know the last two winters here have been harder because I don’t have something to do all-day, everyday.”

“Too much time can be a burden on a lot of people,” I offered.

He fidgeted a little, the heal of his cowboy boot grinding into the carpet.

“I have always been an active guy. In the force, I took all the overtime I could get. I worked all the time – nights, weekends – all of it.. Then, when I had my own business, I worked all the time, made good money, and eventually sold the whole business. I was damn good at it.”

“I can tell, Ed.” I agreed.

“Now, I see,” I think to myself. Addiction to overwork – the coping mechanism of the “successful.”

Ed softened a little. “But y’know, Doc, when I don’t have work, I get cranky, irritable, I snap at my wife. I get worked up easily.”

“Have you ever talked to anyone about this before?” I asked.

“Yeah, once Y’know. A few years back, over the winter, I was on a pill, Prozac, I think. It seemed to take the edge off. I was wondering if that might be a good idea again.”

Primary Care – Psychiatry without the time.

We went through the screening for major depression and generalized anxiety, he was mildly positive for both. More on the anxious side thought.

“I think that some medication would be a reasonable idea. Have you ever done counseling?”

“No, I don’t like the idea of talking with people about these things. It doesn’t seem like my thing.”

He then proceeded to talk with me about “these things” for quite a while. He talked about being first on the scene of a car accident with a dead teenager. The boy was the son of an acquaintance. He had never been able to tell the father he was the first on scene.

“Last month, we were visiting, and he brought up losing his son, I just stood there, feeling so mall.” His held his hand out, index and thumb fingers less than inch apart. “Just like a nothing.”

“That sounds very difficult. Sounds like you might have a lot of experiences from your previous lives you haven’t dealt with. It might be helpful to talk with someone about those things.” I offered.

He looked down. “Yeah, maybe, but I think I’d rather just try the medicine for now.”

We discussed the pros and cons of medicine, counseling, or both. In the end, pills were the plan.

I was not shocked.

Being still, wallowing in our avoided pains and anxieties is enticing to no one. Yet, it is necessary for growth.

Bison – wisely doing nothing. Photo Credit: NPS

Why Can’t We Do Nothing?

Doing nothing is hard work. Some of the ancient philosophers comment on the “laziness” of overwork. To them, breathless activity without direction, simply as a reaction to stimuli, could be seen as complete lack of discipline.

Never mistake motion for action. -Ernest Hemingway

What I have seen in my medical practice is that overwork is often used to keep the mind from reflection. Reflection is the time we take to examine our lives and actions. During reflection, we plot out future action and measure our relationship with the world.

Without reflection, we cannot separate our own action from motion.

Apparently, what lies beneath and inside many of us is very scary, or at least uncomfortable. I see so many people working or at least busying themselves to death, rather than confront their inner selves.

Reflection is difficult territory and requires great courage and discipline. This is why the Buddhists must have a “meditation practice” and why religious mystics have always hid in high, remote monasteries – because the pull of busyness is very strong.

Being still might be the hardest thing

It is likely difficult to have time to be still in all professions. Nonetheless, I have found time for reflection is highly undervalued in the world of medicine.

The thing is, taking the time to do nothing directly benefits only ourselves – at least initially. No one else will carve out time for us to reflect, to measure ourselves and our actions.

It takes extreme discipline to hold the line against Hospital-Pharmaceutical Complex and make room for doing nothing. It is arguably the hardest thing to do in a career of medicine.

I was reminded of this fact reading M’s recent post over at Reflections of a Millennial Doctor. The world will take everything and ask for seconds.

“But, Dr. HP, you could be making more widgets. You could be helping more patients. Isn’t that important to you, Doctor?”

Interestingly, the FIRE blogs are generally full of people whom life has forced, in someway or another, to be still for a moment. However, few seem to have chosen to take that time of their own accord – myself included.

There is always more we could be doing. The question we must answer first is what should we doing.

We cannot answer this question without first taking time to do nothing.

5 thoughts on “The Hard Work of Doing Nothing”

  1. This is indeed quite a thought provoking post.

    The old adage of someone needs something to Retire TO rather than something to Retire FROM comes to mind.

    It is hard to go from something that consumes a lot of time like being a physician to having all the free time in the world like an early retiree. That’s why depression can happen even though this period is thought to be the one you should be happiest in.

    Our bodies are designed so that when they are not in use they atrophy. The brain is no exception. Have to keep it busy or you will slowly deteriorate. I’m glad I found blogging as a source of creativity/inspiration because it forces me to think and also gather more information so I can write about it. Hopefully it is something that will keep me busy when I do retire.

    1. The balance between activity and contemplation is difficult – like all polarities. My point with Ed’s story is less about retiring to something vs from something but pointing out his lack of activity triggered a mild crisis because he had never taken the time to to intermittently do nothing and prepare himself for time when he might not be busy enough to anesthetize his thoughts and emotions.

      I know I find blogging a helpful way to process some of things and expand my contemplative life – which hopefully has good outcomes for me.

  2. So much truth and wisdom in this post!

    Why is it so hard to do nothing??? This week I tried some mindfulness meditation for the first time (trying to cure my chronic insomnia…). After one night, I was so frustrated that I don’t think I slept at all (I was so outraged at myself for failing in the “simple” task of thinking of nothing but my breath).

    After 37 years as a workaholic pelvic floor surgeon, my husband began his practice “slow down” this week (retiring in June). On his first day off he scheduled no fewer than 7 errands, excercised for two hours (and texted me throughout the day with reports on all that he was accomplishing…) I wonder when he will be ready (if ever) for a day of “nothing”?

    After quitting my hospital OB practice and shifting to part time office only work, I now have Thursdays and Fridays off . I of course have already scheduled guitar lessons, Italian lessons, gym classes and more for those days. I wonder when I’ll be able to embrace “l’arte di fare niente”? (an Italian expression: the art of doing nothing)

    1. Thank you for the kind words!

      Now that I do shift work and Locums, I find myself spending a lot of my free time trying to find stuff to fill it rather than embracing the doing of nothing for a period of time.

      The act of being present is strangely difficult. I think for the overscheduled, committed, and achievement focused us among us we may need to start with treated it like one of our other “errands.” Schedule a certain amount of time to literally do nothing, start small and slowly expand it.

  3. If this post intrigued you suggest getting a free “Headspace” trial. It worked for me big time. Now my wife is using it. Sort of like disrupting Buddhism. FYI i am a retired Anesthesiologist. Love your blog.

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