Overcoming Prejudices: Being Right, Being Lazy

Recently, a student told me that she feels “disgusted” by her father’s way of speaking of other people, whether in the news or in the world generally, as he tends to criticize everyone as though they are all “stupid” if they do not think as he does.

In reply to this student, I noted that sometimes we feel “disgusted” by another’s attitude — particularly someone close to us — because we worry about seeing that attitude in ourselves.

As for me, I also think sometimes that people who don’t agree with me are “stupid.” Then I remind myself that many people who agree with me are also stupid. And then I remind myself that in many areas, I was stupid before I became perfectly right. And then I remind myself that I will probably find out in a few more years that, regarding some of the things I am perfectly right about today, I am actually still stupid. The last of these points, though in a sense the most abstract, is probably the most important in the long run.

The presumption of fallibility, or even “falsifiability,” in oneself, is an essential distinction between a life of learning and development and a life of rigidity and stasis. It is the difference between the philosophic life, which is fundamentally private and driven by unsatisfied desire, and the life of a celebrity “knower” such as Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins, or (at an infantile level) Anthony Fauci, which is driven by an obsession with looking irreproachable. The unwillingness to admit the possibility that one might still be wrong also indicates a mind that, when push comes to shove, is equally unlikely to admit that it was ever wrong, and for the same reason: emotional immaturity, the insecurity and indignation of a child afraid of being exposed as unsure about its premises, as “in over one’s head” in life — as in fact we all are. 

Another student, this one of a particularly melancholic nature, tends to get down on herself very quickly when she has not been as productive as she wishes to be. “I was lazy all weekend,” she will say ruefully, even a little angrily, or, “I did nothing last night” — as though doing something were an easily definable category, limited to precisely those things she happened not to be doing.

This tendency to interpret one’s own behavior, when it seems not to have “produced” anything, as grounds for self-reproach — a common trait among melancholics, I would say — may evolve into a destructive habit. For the self-accusations of laziness can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, a paralysis reflex if you will, as the mind immediately and repeatedly negates its own peculiar thought processes, effectively disavowing them — and thereby sacrificing any real but subtle progress made — by labeling those processes “Waste,” and then sealing them up for disposal. How many good but still-evolving ideas have been discarded this way, and thus lost forever (at least to that individual), due to this habitual self-reproach that implicitly and categorically denies the value of doing nothing?

There is no rule, no normal procedure, for a thought process. One might sit (or pace) “idly” for hours before anything resembling a rational thought begins to form in one’s mind. The assumption that if one had stayed busy and active during those hours, doing a hundred recognizably “valuable” things or reading a dozen books, the same thought (or a better one) would surely have formed earlier, is unfounded. In fact, it is counterintuitive — as though one could fidget one’s way to self-understanding.

Some ideas take thirty seconds to develop in the intellect. Others may take thirty hours. Others still may take thirty years. And there is no way to know how long any given idea will require to take shape, since obviously one cannot know exactly what kind of idea one is looking for until it does appear.

A quiet hour of wandering around aimlessly cannot be judged unproductive merely because you “did nothing.” A truly unproductive hour is one which plays no role whatsoever in the mind’s natural steeping process. But that is not a judgment you can easily make at the time, unless of course you spent that hour in the kind of loudness or dissipation that necessarily halts or disintegrates the soul’s delicate inner workings. In other words, from the point of view of spiritual growth, the acquisition of knowledge, or the development of an idea, the person who “keeps busy” or behaves in an outwardly productive way might actually be the lazy one, whereas the kind of idle hours that the more visibly productive types — or those with the self-reproach habit, the paralysis reflex — condemn as “wasted” or “useless” might in truth be of the essence, or at least an essential precondition, of some of the most important forms of productivity.

A necessary qualification of this point: Hours of “doing nothing” may be very productive indeed, but only in the soul of one who is capable of feeling anxious about wasting time. That is to say, idleness in one who willingly sets about doing nothing for its own sake — and that includes, as a large subgroup, many of those who appear superficially busy — will never produce anything worthwhile, because that is idleness without the discomfiting sense that there is indeed something meaningful that one must do.

The idleness that has a chance to contribute to real growth is that of the sort of person who is constitutionally inclined to worry about having wasted time, and thus for whom overcoming this inclination to self-reproach takes effort. Only in a soul afflicted with this inner tension — continually pulled taut between a compelling awareness that something needs to be done and the impulse to resist immediate action in favor of “doing nothing” — can idleness (of the quiet, non-frenetic sort) have a genuinely beneficial function in the soul’s development. In such a person, what might seem like simple “laziness” often has the character of biding one’s time, like Socrates in Alcibiades’ account, standing in one spot thinking for twenty-four hours (while encamped during a troop movement!), or like a fisherman quietly staring at his line in the water for an afternoon, or like a beast of prey slowly circling its territory, patiently waiting for the best moment to pounce. Don’t eagles and wild cats look lazy much of the time? That is how they hunt.

(See also, “The Small, The Great, and the Self-Esteem Myth.”)

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