Off the Hook I used to work in a job where, in the line of duty, I had to deal with bullies on a regular basis. I waded into one situation after another where someone needed to be shown the error of their ways and how they could make amends. I went to great lengths to ensure the amends were made. I became, in a way, a bullier of bullies, and was very happy with myself. I started to think of myself as a bit of a tough man, a hard-nosed champion of the underdog, someone who couldn’t themselves be bullied.
Then I was laid low by an unexpected confluence of events. The writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls them ‘black swans’ – unpredictable, improbable, unplanned-for events that have an extreme impact. The world seemed to rearrange itself around me, darkness closed in. I found out that I could be bullied after all, by circumstances beyond my control, by negative thoughts, by anxiety and fear and a crippling inability to see that the sun was just below the horizon, that the dawn was always coming. I wasn’t a tough man, after all. I felt foolish for ever having had that idea of myself. It took me a while, but I came to realise that no one needs to spend their life being tough. All any of us can be is ourselves and we’re all vulnerable, easily wounded, open to pain. No one wears impenetrable armour. Not all the time, anyway. Armour is heavy, it has to come off.
After my blacks swans had flown in, wreaked their havoc, and flown away again, I started to become really aware of the value of doing nothing. Of letting myself off the hook. I realised that I could only occupy the space I occupied and I could only exist in the present moment. The past and its traumas couldn’t be changed, the future couldn’t be predicted. The black swans might circle back or they might be gone forever. I armed myself against the darkness with a little arsenal of weapons formed from things that brought a feeling of calm and gave me pleasure: scrolling through ads for vintage cars on Done Deal; sitting at the back door having a coffee and watching birds in the garden; finding a good TV series and allowing myself an episode a day; taking a walk or a cycle or a jog; or my favourite of all: a few minutes or a few hours of doing nothing at all.
These lines from AC/DC’s classic Down Payment Blues always come to me when I find myself beginning to feel overwhelmed: ‘I know I ain’t doing much/But doing nothing means a lot to me.’ Doing nothing should mean a lot to all of us. Really doing actually nothing, and not feeling any obligation whatsoever to do anything, or achieve anything, or create anything. And most importantly, feeling no guilt for it. Stillness and proper rest: phone-off, door-closed, every-limb-relaxed absolute inactivity is a beautiful treat that we should all regularly allow ourselves. We shouldn’t actually see it as a treat at all, but as an absolute right. Not just in snatched moments, but for hours, or days at a time. However long you need. You don’t need a country bolthole or a spa weekend or anything at all: a nice chair is enough, or, if you don’t have a chair, a square of level ground. Do nothing, and revel in it. The world will spin on, the sun will rise and set and rise again. Lie on your back and look up at the sky for a while. Let yourself off the hook.
The noblest of all ambitions is to be kind, to ourselves and the people around us. No one expects grand acts of altruism or selflessness; the most profound kindnesses are often quiet acts, barely visible. The most worthwhile action is often inaction. A conscious decision to do nothing, to ask nothing of oneself, to let the world be as it is, can have a powerful effect. Like Hungry Paul in Rónán Hession’s wonderful novel, Leonard and Hungry Paul, who ‘maintained a natural clarity throughout his day, and stayed apart from the trouble that the world will undoubtedly make for those who look for it’, we should all allow ourselves peace, quietness, stillness. We should all let ourselves off the hook.
On May 8th this year we can join millions of people around the world in a shared moment of peace and hope as the sun rises on our beautiful planet, supporting Pieta as we do so. It’ll be a moment of togetherness and friendship, a quiet moment of care, for ourselves and for others, as we walk through the darkness into light.