Meditation on the merits of doing nothing

It is my tenth day in Mozambique, and the wind is howling through our thatched home. Rain poured in sideways through the night, dampening our beds and pooling on the concrete floor. Fifty feet away, three teenage boys are bailing out their fishing dhow, hoping to spare it from the sunken fate of its neighbor—though both boats will be dry enough in a few hours when the tide goes out.

I’ve been visiting Mozambique with Jackie Cahi, a friend from Kufunda Learning Village, and her family. I flew out to Harare, Zimbabwe, on Christmas Day, and we departed the morning after I arrived, driving 12 hours overland to Vilankulo, a small town on Mozambique’s south coast.

I’ve never been on a trip quite like this. The heat has been so oppressive that from dawn to dusk, there’s little for the seven of us to do but to sit in the stillness of the day in our one common room, reading quietly or staring out to sea. The Indian Ocean seems even warmer than the air, if that’s possible, and too hot to swim in except early in the morning and as evening falls. The day is interrupted only when one of us announces that the masts of the dhows have changed direction with the tide, and the sandbars have escaped the sea and then been swallowed up once again.

Every morning, we cut up local pineapple, papaya, mango and coconut into a fruit salad, topping it with yogurt whose supply Jackie replenishes every other day by adding heated milk to what remains and storing it for 12 hours in the hot box. For lunch, we trudge through the sweating stalls of the outdoor marketplace to bring back tomatoes, cabbage, pao (bread), cheese and eggs. But dinner is our highpoint. Each day we watch the dhows as they go out and back from their fishing expeditions, our mouths watering in anticipation of clams, crab, calamari, mussels, kingfish. The local specialty is matapa, a mixture of coconut and cassava leaves in a peanut paste to which you can add crabmeat or prawns. Each evening, just when the power goes out for 20 minutes, we sit down to a meal of today’s catch, accompanied simply by bread, potatoes or rice and chopped tomatoes. We’re asleep by 9 pm and wake to experience the same day all over again.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve never done before. The absolute simplicity of every day is the antithesis of my life in the U.S. At home, it seems that having choice and feeling engaged are the ambitions of a good life. I take pride in my endless streams of activity—in just one week, I will watch a musical performance, dine with friends, attend a lecture, host an event, visit with family. More important, I seem to operate from a belief that the more I squeeze in, the greater my sense of accomplishment, efficiency and contribution. My daily schedule is a race from one appointment, phone call and event to the next. There’s a sense of urgency in all this rushing about: The world is a mess. If I do a good job, things will get better. I have a responsibility to make wise use of my time.

And yet here I sit for 10 days doing nothing, and I’m certain not only that I’m doing no harm, but that perhaps I am doing less harm than I do at home. Does all that rushing about have any positive impact at all? Or is it an illusion I maintain to give myself a sense of purpose?

Besides, how would I know the difference?

I am not advocating a “do no harm” approach to life. I do believe that we have an obligation to seek to make a positive contribution, and that fear our efforts may in fact cause some harm is unnecessarily paralyzing. But I also believe it’s important not to rush blindly from one activity to the next—as I so often do at home—without asking ourselves whether doing nothing would be of greater value than plowing ahead.

I have only one more day left in Mozambique. It’s 10 AM here, so I have many hours stretched out ahead of me before I begin the long journey home. I intend to spend the rest of my time doing absolutely nothing.

2 replies
  1. Ria Baeck
    Ria Baeck says:

    Nice post! I see also more, what I call the collective illusion of ‘ having to do a lot’ and ‘squeeze in more in a bit of time’… it is just not natural!
    How can we sense what is really true, or what wants to emerge when we are running around? we need some more silence, stillness – and then, sometimes we act in an instant.
    With love from rainy Belgium,
    Ria

    Reply

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