The Radical Magic of Laziness


There is a poem that haunts me: Lying in A Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright. It’s only thirteen lines long, and the last one kills me every time:

I have wasted my life.

The speaker of the poem spends the first twelve lines describing what he sees from his vantage point in the hammock. A bronze butterfly drowses on a nearby tree, the sunlight suffuses everything with beauty, even last year’s horse droppings that “blaze up into golden stones,” while overhead flies a chickenhawk “floating home.”

Simple, lyrical, and life-affirming. And then, pow, that last line.

This is the poem that comes to me when I catch myself being too busy. Given that you occupy this planet at the same time as me, I suspect the same thing happens to you. A work deadline looms, or a big trip is coming up, or you’ve set yourself a merciless list of goals. Pretty soon you’re in a frenzy, hacking grimly away at a To Do list that grows with the tenacity of a jungle vine. Fed by your fervor, it only sends out more tendrils.

You don’t notice chickenhawks floating home, or sleeping butterflies, or that your loved ones are giving you a wide berth. You certainly have no time for a hammock.

Days can pass in this manner, or weeks, or even years. When you finally snap out of it, it occurs to you that you’ve barely registered your surroundings. You’re left with a collection of ticked boxes and the disquieting sense that time has passed you by.

I’m convinced this is what Wright means by that last line: I have wasted my life. The speaker is a guy who has finally taken a minute to lie in a hammock on his friend’s farm (note how the title itself sounds like it’s from a list of Things To Do On Vacation), and confronts what he’s been missing.

He hasn’t been lazy enough, and it has cost him big time.

You can hardly turn around without smacking into the latest life hack or articles exhorting you to increase your productivity through this or that method (or, perversely, through meditation!). In a world where “crazy busy” is such a virtue flag that even the absurdly wealthy want us to know how hard they work, being lazy is a radical act.

I believe that it is a necessary one. Life-saving, even.

Let me be clear: by laziness, I mean spending time doing nothing. Between social media, online shopping and the 24-hour news channels, contemporary life is crammed with all sorts of ways to distract yourself. You can easily fill up your time with activities that provide the illusion of doing something while offering nothing in the way of authentic satisfaction. It’s the psychic equivalent of junk food: a cheap and immediate pleasure, but easy to overdo, and it certainly does not result in time well wasted.

Take time — seriously, it’s your time, a treasure with an unknown but unavoidable expiration date, so please take it — to lie in a hammock and gaze at the clouds, or stand barefoot on the lawn on a summer night and regard the stars. Sit in a chair in front of the fireplace on a chilly morning and drink tea, and that’s all. Meditate, if you feel like you have to get fancy with it. Daydream.

If you’re a creative type — and I submit that if you’re human, you’re creative — the judicious application of laziness is more nourishing to your brain, your heart, and your soul than any ten day cleanse or 30 day challenge will ever be. And when you do get back to work, you’ll be the better for it.

Being alive, in this moment, at this extraordinary point on our extraordinary planet, is a rare and improbable gift. It’s terribly easy to overlook.

So don’t just do something; sit there. You never know when a chickenhawk might be up there, floating home.


  1. Beautiful turn of phrase: your time, a treasure with an unknown but unavoidable expiration date. It feels like in this time of heightened anxiety, every day that passes without joy or wonder or some sense of satisfaction is another day closer to a wasted life. Thanks for the reminder, Jan!

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one! We definitely all need a break from the constant distraction of contemporary life, and the way you write about it is beautiful.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful reminder, Jan. I need reminders to slow down and smell the roses. I have 2 speeds, running like a maniac or barely moving. Loved this phrase: “It’s the psychic equivalent of junk food”. Our 24/7 connectedness is literally driving us crazy. I “misplace” my phone on purpose at least once a day.

  4. Aaaaaah, yes… doing nothing must relearned as an adult. Even retired, I am shocked at how much I need to do! My lists are many and long! Yet at least I have realized that doing nothing is an essential part of my life. Now, if I could just find more time for it!!

  5. I agree – I think we understand this as we get older, but I also think some people are just born with the ability to balance their doing and not doing hours. I’m kind of a doer most of the time, but when I get too busy and begin to burn out, my body and mind shift on their own and force me to relax and do nothing (sometimes a nap). It’s always good to get a reminder, too!

    • You are wise to listen to your mind and body, Barb! When I ignore mine, I end up regretting it.

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