The Freedom to Do Nothing

woodland home

sustainable, energy-efficient 500sf home built using local, healthy, natural materials into the side of  a woodland hill in Wales

.     .     .     .     .

When you begin to get free, you will get depressed. It works like this: When you were three years old, if your parents weren’t too bad, you knew how to play spontaneously. Then you had to go to school, where everything you did was required. The worst thing is that even the fun activities, like singing songs and playing games, were commanded under threat of punishment. So even play got tied up in your mind with a control structure, and severed from the life inside you. If you were “rebellious”, you preserved the life inside you by connecting it to forbidden activities, which are usually forbidden for good reasons, and when your rebellion ended in suffering and failure, you figured the life inside you was not to be trusted. If you were “obedient”, you simply crushed the life inside you almost to death.

Freedom means you’re not punished for saying no. The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish, and then it will take more time before you build up enough skill that other people recognize your actions as valuable.

– quote from post-civ pioneer Ran Prieur, sent to me by fellow North Cascadian David Parkinson (italics mine)

When I read this, I shuddered. This is exactly what I have been going through since my retirement from paid work a few months ago. As I mentioned in my last post, all my wonderful, ambitious intentions for model-building, activism, and even personal reconnection sit unrealized, either because I’m still too exhausted to commit myself to them, or because they’re not really what I want to do. And I suspect it’s the latter.

When I wrote the chapter in my book on how to discover what you really want to do (for a living), I adapted or invented a whole set of exercises that readers could use to hone in on the work they were “meant to do”, work the reader had personal passion about. Recently I’ve been putting myself through some of these exercises:

  • The “three circles” exercise, to iteratively explore my gifts, passions and purpose and where they intersect
  • Recalling the moments in my work and personal life that filled me with the greatest sense of accomplishment and joy
  • Writing my bio, as I would like it to read by the time my life is over (i.e. personal obituary exercise)
  • Summarizing who I really am (not what I do, or my titles or roles) in 50 words or less
  • Making a list of the things I really care about
  • Writing a future state day-in-the-life story about me, doing what I’ve always dreamed of spending every day doing

They’re a valuable but frustrating set of exercises, and they’re hard work, even when (perhaps especially when) all the restrictions (time, money, family obligations, work and other commitments) that I used to be able to use as excuses for the gap between what I really want to do, and what I am actually doing, have disappeared. My June 7 post re-explored my “three circles”, and it really was an exercise in going in circles. The problem with the “list of things I really care about” is that, when I look more closely at the list, I discover it’s really a list of things I think I should care about, or used to care about, or think someone needs to act upon (but not me, since I don’t have the right competencies or capacities). Or they’re so vast that they’re unactionable, or at least I have no idea where to start.

In preparing my 50-word “who I am” summary, I started with who I was as a young child and went through all the damage that was done to me, all the gunk I took on, all the things I pretended to be because it was expected, or was easy, but was not me, before I came up with this summary:

vegan, earth-loving, earth-grieving, idealistic, poly, unsociable, unschooled, self-dissatisfied, nudist, intuitive, corpocracy-hating, anarchist, doomer (about industrial civilization), optimistic (about post-civ society), radical, wounded, hedonistic, impatient, easily-discouraged, overly-analytical, generalist writer, dreamer and imaginer of possibilities

I picked these qualities to describe me because they’ve been emergent and persistent — as I get older they get more pronounced, more entrenched as part of who I am, such that it’s hard for me to imagine myself stopping being any of these things.

So, trying the 24 elements of this description on for size, seeing them as a part of my skin that I expect to wear more-or-less permanently, I then wrote a short day-in-the-life story of me being these 24 things, doing things I think I enjoy, practically, in the future. The difficulty in really believing this story is that it’s predicated on me finding the people I’m meant to live with, my intended (if not intentional) community. I’ve been looking so long that as I re-read this story I could hear myself saying “well, that’s never going to happen.”

But here’s the story anyway. Not world-saving or world-changing or even altruistic. Just me as I think I am becoming, or perhaps always was, and forgot, doing what I love:

The community is made up of a series of small but airy huts built by us collectively, into the mountainside, gently enfolded by rainforest and a short walk to the ocean. We each have our own hut, made (surprisingly easily and quickly, from my perspective as someone who had never built anything before) from local materials using a compressed earth block machine. The common areas are in separate huts, and all the huts are connected by a series of halls and tunnels. There is art everywhere, most of it our own.

I wake up late (some things never change), and spend the end of the morning walking, running, or meditating, usually alone, just being present with the abundance of wild life around us. Our lunch and dinner ritual is to forage in the Edible Forest Garden that surrounds our community, that now (after 20 years of work) sustains itself without the need for human labour, chemicals or water. We then sit and eat in community, together, exchanging ideas and asking the rest of the group questions about whatever creative projects we’re working on, or about philosophy or whatever else we care about, or how we might better model the world as it could be for all humans, or convey this possibility better to those still caught in the maw of industrial civilization. Eating and bathing have become, for us, communal activities, and if there’s a lull in the conversation someone will tell a story, or play music.

The early afternoon, usually, is our time for learning, and most of the time now we learn from each other, by watching, by doing, by practicing, rather than by reading or Internet browsing the way we usually used to learn. I’m learning to recognize the birds in the rainforest, by sight and sound, from one of our community members, and learning to draw pencil sketches from another. In return, I’m teaching the others a bit about song composition, and mentoring the community’s unschooled children. These learning hours also accommodate discussion of community matters needing consensus, conflict resolution, or personal commitments to be made, though our community has self-selected and taught itself so well that this is rarely needed anymore.

The later afternoon is mostly for more personal work projects and practices. Sometimes I write — mostly plays, film scripts, songs, poems and short stories these days. Sometimes I draw, or practice some of the other skills I’m learning. Often I just relax and daydream. My sexual fantasies are very creative, but they’re private. I’ve reached the age at which the objects of my desire are not interested in me in that way, so since my desire hasn’t abated I look after myself, even though the members of my community kid me about this (“that’s not poly.”)

Evening is time for community play — invented and rediscovered games, musical and theatrical improv, and rehearsed group singing, dancing, theatre and story-telling. Later in the evening, when only a few of us stragglers remain, we may discuss what’s going on in the rest of the world. Many of us have liaison responsibilities we’ve volunteered for — mine are with the international Transition Movement, the Unschooling collaborative, and the Dark Mountain artists’ cooperative — and the late evening discussion gives us a chance to brief each other on these extra-community activities and capture information and ideas to report back to our counterparts in other communities.

My day usually ends in the communal hot tub — hot water seems to stimulate my creativity — chatting with the other late-nighters and jotting down notes for the next day. And then more dreaming.

It occurs to me that this day-in-a-life scenario is probably not terribly different (except for a few convenient new technologies) from the life of prehistoric human rainforest dwellers. Community-based. Collective eating and bathing and play. Time for art and reflection and for private projects. Lots of learning-by-doing. Comfortable subsistence with minimal work.

Is this what I will, eventually, want to do, once I get tired of doing nothing? Maybe.

I know most of my readers do not have this freedom, and if it is annoying to have me moping about the fact that I do, I’m sorry. If you do have this freedom, or can imagine yourself having it, what would you see your story being, once you got tired of doing nothing?

This entry was posted in Collapse Watch. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Freedom to Do Nothing

  1. Martin-Éric says:

    Without being rebellious in nature, I nonetheless always have had troubles fitting in with external requirements such as attending school. Not really because they felt imposed but because I felt that I was wasting my time (and other people’s time) by doing what was expected of me and “going through the program” rather than staying at home learning to become better at skills and activities that matter to me personally. The same gut reaction remains nowadays. Having a career always felt like it was taking precious time away from what matters to me and it always takes a colossal amount of external pressure to steal my focus away from my achieving my own personal goals.

  2. Nancy White says:

    Reading, catching up with some of your thoughts, chewing on some, spitting some out (well, yeah…) and savoring many. Lots of beams to you. Listening in Seattle.

  3. Mike says:

    I recall reading, long ago, a (very) speculative article about future human evolution, where mankind transformed the earth into a paradise, free of all violence and predators, nothing for people to do but eat, sleep, and have sex, and at the endpoint, turning off self-awareness entirely.

  4. Skeeter says:


    I just went to an unschooling conference a couple weekends ago with my family (Wife and 3 kids ages 11, 8, 3) and in one of our Dad’s discussions we talked a lot about the de-schooling process. This is that process you described about dealing with the sudden freedom of realising you get to do what you want. The general rule of thumb was about 1 month of deschooling per year of schooling the kid had attended. This time of course varies wildly from person to person and is just a reminder that the time needs to be taken. The main point was to realise that just because your kid doesn’t seem to be doing much, they are really learning to be in control of themselves for the first time. I guess the important point is that it takes time to get used to freedom.

    The other point that your post reminds me of from that conference was the idea that ‘unschooling’ isn’t really about children and school, but about all of us (both the kids AND the parents) learning how to be human again in a world that is recovering from the Industrial age and the systems that still remain from the top down control based world.

    Being human is something that we need to relearn as a people.


  5. Rob Paterson says:

    Sounds like a traditional hunter gatherer life to me Dave – maybe this is a more natural rhythm and interchange – I also bet that most of us are totally exhausted by a life of projects and control

  6. Evelyn says:

    I listened to the EconTalk interview with Castronova the other day (, and one of the things that I was most interested in, was their discussion of how virtual worlds are designed to increase engagement and happiness. But then, casinos and shopping malls are designed to increase engagement. (But not happiness, you needs a sense of discomfort to open your wallet.)

    In the ‘real world’ we have the opportunity to create a life which does increase our happiness and engagement and contribution. But, there are lots of forces which push away from that. Forces which push into maintaining systems that never get better. Such as described in It’s especially difficult to change them when they’re not horrible, but just bad enough.

    I’m contemplating how to create an environment here and now which is better for me. So, I’m paying attention to the sources of discomfort, and changing them. There’s a lot to think about just in the way I feel and react here and now.

    Here’s hoping your path leads you to happiness, engagement and contribution.

  7. David says:

    The question “Who am I” is not the question we should be asking. This question will not bear serious scrutiny, and neither will the question “How do I know?” The only question that matters is “What will I do?” And this question is followed closely in importance by the questions “How will I do it?” and “How will I learn from it?” Best wishes to all.

  8. Indigo Ocean says:

    When I’ve had periods of many months without the need for work to support myself or school to attend, I’ve wound up doing a lot of nature gazing and a lot of writing. I’ve also taught sacred dance and facilitated spiritual improv groups, but those two activities came more out of a sense of wanting to see what I could do productively with sacred arts now that I had no external obstacles. After doing each a relatively short period of time I discovered I didn’t really care to do any of that.

    When left to do whatever I want, I find that I give to others primarily through my writing and I receive primarily through nature gazing. The rest is just keeping the body cared for.

  9. Jordan says:

    The best thing a free person can do is help others get free. I like this poem from here

    Dropping Keys by Hafiz

    The small man
    Builds cages for everyone
    While the sage,
    Who has to duck his head
    When the moon is low,
    Keeps dropping keys all night long
    For the

  10. Ed says:

    Jordan, thanks mucho for the Hafiz.

  11. John B says:

    Many of the items that you once said you wanted to work to defeat (tar sand oil extraction, factory farming, etc.) are only going to go away when there is no money in them. Instead of actively working against them, you can work against them by denying them their lifeblood which is money. Perhaps one of your efforts would be to demonstrate and write about how to live an enjoyable, fulfilling life with minimal need for money by shunning pretentious consumerism and utilizing the gift economy to provide the basic physical necessities. If most people adopt this relaxed minimal lifestyle, it will defeat the money oriented corporations that are destroying the earth.

    Your “community” or tribe can include both full time members who are physically present continuously and also cybertribe members who come and go as the wish and as they are needed. This gives you much more flexibility in organizing your community. So it is possibly to start your community at any time using your existing friends and contacts and being more or less involved with them as the situation dictates.

    Your daily schedule sounds much too structured to me.

    Recently you wrote that “The hard part is finding people who care.” Develop and live in an interesting community and you won’t have to find the people who care, they will find you.

  12. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Freedom to Do Nothing « how to save the world --

  13. Lishui says:

    I’d be called upon to greater and greater healing projects – people, species, biomes… and from each I’d learn something new and amazing. In between, I’d read, craft clothing and other household items, make music, and spend a lot of time with food – growing, preserving, cooking, eating. I’d also spend a lot of time with kids, telling them stories, having fun, and teaching them everything I know. Twice a year I’d take four days of silence and contemplation, preparing myself for my next series of projects and letting Life tell me what those are.
    I’d live in community and enjoy nice morning sex pretty much every day, and campfire/woodstove singalong and dance sessions with friends most evenings.
    In civilized life where I’m currently still mostly trapped, I couldn’t achieve what I want to do in ten lifetimes. But in my vision, I achieve ten lifetimes of love and learning every year.

  14. Dave–not sure if this will show up as a trackback:
    Stunted being and Prometheus unbound

    Thank you for the great material and thought process!

Comments are closed.