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Dolce far niente//The sweetness of doing nothing

The concept of nothing is a curious one; shrouded in enigmatic intrigue, it is one that I, in recent days, have found myself contemplating rather more than usual.

Semantically, nothing is, in many ways, an abyss: it’s one end to the spectrum of ‘all or nothing’; it often acts as a dismissive, nullifying remark concerning things that are inconsequential; it’s a diversion from things when we are asked what is wrong; and, for many of us, it has become the involuntary flavour of a rather spiceless month in lockdown.

Doing nothing is often deemed lazy and a waste of time. It can also, however, crucially constitute something of a luxury and an indulgence, and this is where I think it gets really interesting.

The Italians have a saying, dolce far niente, which may be translated into English as ‘the sweetness of doing nothing.’

It strikes me, however, that, in order for any sweetness to be gleaned from ‘doing nothing’, ‘nothing’ must in fact amount to ‘something’; as King Lear – and, indeed, Maria von Trapp – astutely observed, ‘nothing comes from nothing’.

It therefore follows that ‘doing nothing’ is in fact quite the opposite of what it, upon first glance, might seemingly purport to be; instead of an empty and futile nothingness, ‘doing nothing’ is the catalytic canvas onto which we may project our whimsical and most leisurely desires.

Alternative translations of dolce far niente often play upon the notion of idleness, though the extent to which this is appropriate is, in some respects, questionable. For all its passive and superficial ambiguity, ‘doing nothing’ is an active concept, a meditated act that is full of purpose and rejuvenating intent.

The philosophy of dolce far niente is much discussed in Eat, Pray, Love, when the main character is introduced to and encouraged to practice it by her Roman friends, in the hope that she might learn how to properly relax and indulge herself.

The following morning, she runs herself a bath before enjoying a leisurely breakfast. She then sits back, sighs, and reminds herself of the all-important words. Soon after this, she is interrupted by her landlady, which seems a shame, though, if anything, this abruptness is all the more testimony to the sincere sweetness in which her version of ‘doing nothing’ results.

Indeed, again, for all its superficial ambiguity and anonymity, ‘doing nothing’ is an inherently personal concept – specific to each of us as individuals. It is not so much the sweetness of doing ‘nothing’, but rather the sweetness of doing as we please that is of most importance.

Naturally, this then begs the question of why ‘doing nothing’ is so wholly restorative. It seems to me that there are two main reasons for this: the first lies in the fact that ‘doing nothing’ is dependent upon us making the choice for ourselves of which ‘something’ we would like our ‘nothing’ to be; it is dependent upon us considering what we would like to do, as opposed to what we feel we ought to do. Thus, it becomes a vessel for self-expression and fulfilment.

The second reason is the stilling potential of the act of ‘doing’ itself; deciding and indulging in what we want is restorative because it focuses the mind and forces us to engage with, and within, the present moment.

This sense of process associated with ‘doing nothing’ is, in turn, significant because it instils within one a sense of purpose; we have a clear goal in mind and are aware of the steps that must be completed in order for us to reach it.

In remaining focused upon our endeavours, we do not allow our minds to wander, as they are so often and so proverbially wont to do; in taking the time, moreover, to do our version of ‘nothing’ properly, we are rewarded with a satisfaction that is all the sweeter for it.

This is precisely what is so pleasing about the EPL breakfast scene; everything is broken down so that we can appreciate it in its most essential form: the eggs are boiled, peeled, the asparagus sizzles in the pan, the bread is sliced, the olives topple onto the plate, and everything drizzled in oil.

Indeed, there is a certain, pleasing, and somewhat reassuring irony in the idea that, by reducing something to and celebrating its minutiae, we might ourselves feel in some way renewed and replenished.

As Winnie the Pooh observes, ‘doing nothing often leads to the very best something’; whilst not explicitly taking into account the notion of ‘nothing’ already constituting ‘something’ in itself, such a sentiment effectively reveals the transformative effect that the act of ‘doing nothing’ can have upon our own happiness.

It also reinforces the timeless suggestion of it being ‘the small things in life’; size is, after all, famously, not everything, and, for all their feeble size, it is often the small ‘nothings’ in life that ultimately afford us the greatest freedom and pleasure.

Nothing comes from nothing, but there really is nothing like doing nothing to restore one to oneself, and to remind one of its sweetness within the equally dolce vita.

- Cleo O'Callaghan Yeoman

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