The Ability to Do Nothing

Think for a moment, how often do you do absolutely nothing? Now, I’m not talking about watching the TV, reading a book, sleeping…those would all be considered something regardless of your value judgement. Think hard: Nothing, sitting and staring into space, maybe watching people pass on the street and kids play in the patio. Concession, it’s hot in Paraguay so that nothingness activity might also include terere.

I don’t know your answer, but mine before coming to Paraguay was almost never. It’s so culturally ingrained in me that I must always be doing something it’s practically biological. At best, doing nothing for extended periods of time makes me show physical signs of stress. At worst, long stretches of nothingness makes me saturnine and frozen with boredom.

Paraguayans possess an innate ability to do nothing, or maybe it’s culturally taught, because the kids here have more energy then a hydro-dam running full throttle. The point is this, to my community members, a great afternoon is one spent sitting outside in the shade drinking terere. For hours. Sometimes that sitting involves conversations about the normal—who’s dating who, who’s not parents right, who’s gotten into trouble, or who did this, that, and the other thing. You know, small-town gossip. If you come from where I come from in the States you know the drill.

It’s hard for me to comprehend that an afternoon spent in such a way isn’t a waste. I know the Paraguayans in my community see an afternoon sitting as a gift, as a win. I’m always trying hard to not use my culture to judge them, but it’s difficult. Something about idleness gets to me. There are studies that people in the States should do less, that the brain needs time to just putter along. I have my doubts.

My tolerance for nothingness has grown. I can sit a couple of hours a couple times a week before my legs get completely stiff and my brain feels like mush. It’s an improvement, but I don’t possess the ability of nothingness. I never will.

The ability to do nothing is the ability to only think about this moment in time. To enjoy everything there is, as it is, and not question how it could be improved or changed. I can never only live in the moment. I replay the past; I ponder the future. If I’m not thinking about my life I slip into planning out the novel I’m writing, or going to write someday, I think about philosophical questions.

Having passed my year mark in Paraguay, I’ve returned to the conclusion that it is neither good or bad to be able to do nothing, but it is bad to force myself to try too often. Paraguayans judge self-worth in a different way than I do. They define self-worth by the group they are part of—their family, friends, or team. I define self-worth by what I’v done. To ask me to do nothing too often, is to ask me to be worthless. My way of seeing things is not better or worse than the Paraguayan way, it’s just different. And when in Paraguay, do as the Paraguayans do…with a grain of salt. I now always carry a book or flashcards when I go visiting…just in case the terere conversation stops and I find myself falling into the black abyss of nothing. There’s a difference between integrating and losing yourself.