June 18, 2012

Something for Nothing

You know, I really need to watch what I say on this blog.  Not cause I get into anything super-controversial (although I don't mind doing so), but because I have an odd habit of cursing myself.  In this case, last time, I'd promised to show you "what I can do with nothing at all".  Well, not long after that, my computer suffered several massive hardware failures and died on me.  I had to replace both video cards, two of my three hard-drives, and two of my three RAM chip-sets.  Yeah.  You don't even want to know how long this all took and what kind of Hell I had to walk through just to get the components.  With my computer reduced to nothing, I set about re-building her from scratch. The story has a happy ending though, since none of my personal data was lost except a few trivial StarCraft II replays that even I don't mind losing, and I've been able to (mostly) restore my machine to her former glory as of the time of this writing.  Oddly enough, though, having to rebuild my beloved Hive Queen from scratch (Yeah, I call my computer the Hive Queen...don't act surprised) is rather fortuitous as it provided me with living proof of the value of what I intend to inflict...er...discuss with you today.

The Value of "Nothing"

I worked as a New York City Public School teacher for two years after I graduated college, and before that, I spent several summers as an intern with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) at their site near Yankee Stadium.  Don't worry, I'm not about to go describing the experience in full; I'm trying to keep your interest here.  In my time as a teacher/TA, I learned that one of the things considered most important in educating the youth of America, is structure.  Structure in the form of rules and regulations, consistent scheduling, and heavily standardized classes and activities were (and still are) all the rage.  The very thought of giving the children any down time was a sort of "Mortal Sin" unto itself. 

Now, I'm not going to start up a discussion of the merits of this highly structured model. I think it's rather obvious that people need structure in their lives and that school needs to have rhythm and routine to work properly - we'll come back to this in a minute, though.  It would be SEVERAL blog posts worth of discussion to go into why I personally believe the Board of Education needs to re-think a lot of it's structuring, and it's not what I want to talk about.  I want to talk about what I came to see as the true downside of structuring life: sometimes, you need time to do nothing.

Let's look at "nothing" a bit more closely.  When I say that people need time to do nothing, I mean people need time to themselves where there are no obligations, expectations, or requirements of their time that would prevent them from doing/thinking/feeling whatever they want.  In essence, I mean that I believe people benefit from time away from the structure of modern life. There's no denying that structure is good for us, but on the whole, I've come to think that "no structure" is actually better for us.  Don't get me wrong, this is only true when we have some structure in our lives, and the people in the world without any structure don't benefit, but on balance, I really believe that the ratio of "nothing" to "something" is healthier when it's tipped towards the "nothing" end. 

Why? Well, because "nothing" allows us to experience what I consider to be the most important aspect of our cognitive lives: the ability to create.   See, as a species, we're hard-wired to want to make something from nothing.  It's an interesting aspect of the human psyche.  When presented with a blank canvas, the human animal cannot help but envision a work of art.  If given tools, we're likely to build with whatever we happen to have available.  Time spent thinking is invariably time spent creating; sometimes images, sometimes sounds, sometimes abstract ideas, but always we are making something.  It's just how we are. 

The irony some of you may notice in this is that we never have "unstructured" time.  Bingo! There is no such thing as truly unstructured human life.  When left to our own devices we create our own structure.   This is essentially the reason we have organized social life as a species.  We need structure so we make it where there is none.  So why is "nothing" so important?  Because it allows us the room to create a structured space we control.  I'm not going to bash societal constructs for being limiting or bad for us (although some of them plainly are), but I will definitely say that the demand to acquiesce to these structures creates a feeling of confinement that we all resist to some extent. 

Those who remember my (not terribly successful) Defense of Escapism from about a billion years ago will recall that the central thesis of that post was that we all require rules of our own to live a happy life.  They don't need to conflict directly (or at least openly) with the rules of reality; they just need to be ours.  Well, we can't have these rules of our own without that "nothing" required for us to go about creating them.  When all we have are the structures outside ourselves, we can't live as enriching a life.  The rules and structures of the other will always feel limiting compared to the ones we create on our own. We need rules; we need structure.  We just need it to be partly ours. 

This is why daydreaming is so important to development.  We put our children through so much structured life in today's world between school, camp, and after-school activities, that I feel like there's a real risk of not having enough "nothing" to let the mind create.  I know that most of the activities I just mentioned are about learning new skills to create, but like I already said, if it's all from outside, it just feels like work and not enough like our own act of creation.  Hell, we actually call time off "recreation".  That's not an accident, folks - that's what we do in our "down time". 

This attitude that we must be "doing" at all times has seeped into nearly all aspects of the modern American life, and in my opinion, it's not for the best.  Schools believe that giving children down-time will make them delinquent or unruly; employers believe that employees who aren't working every second of every day are just stealing from the company; and even modern movies are terrified of not spelling everything out for their audience.  This fixation on structuring has gotten out of hand, and it's killing our creativity, and more importantly, our happiness. 

I know that sounds sensationalist, but consider this anecdote before I leave you. I was genuinely angry (justifiably so, I feel) that my computer got reset to zero during the crash.  I was not looking forward to having to put everything back the way it was when it had always just been that way.  But as I started putting pieces back into place, a strange thing happened: I started enjoying myself.  By bringing my computer back to a state of nothing, I was given that blank canvas that tempts our imagination.  While I admit that I was not especially imaginative in setting everything up again, I can't deny that going through all the applications, plug-ins, drivers, and codecs had a zen-like charm to it.  I started relishing the re-building experience.  I was spending time making my computer my "friend" again.   It felt good; it felt like daydreaming.  I was making it whatever I wanted.  Finding just the right tools or programs to make it work better than before made it feel like I was in control, not just of the machine, but of a part of my life.  I was giving it real structure; my structure.

I won't say that the solution is to start from scratch; that would be ridiculous.  I will say, that we might all benefit from a little more "nothing" in our lives so that we might "recreate" our selves from time to time.  After all, we want to play by the rules; we just want to play by our rules once in a while. 

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.

1 comment:

  1. So just a few quick responses--more reactions than thoughts.

    1. Notwithstanding the attempts of schools to impose structure and withhold downtime--kids create their own downtime in class. It's called day-dreaming (when benign in form), or acting-out, when not. You can't suppress it: it's like a balloon. If you squeeze one end, the other pops out.

    2. The re-building from scratch of a computer, or of anything else, can be an extremely rewarding experience, as you document. And usually it takes a crisis to bring it on--you know, you think of doing some little thing, and then you realize that if you do that, well, then you ought to do this other thing, too. And of course, if you do those, then something else really doesn't quite fit anymore and needs to be changed, and the whole project begins to feel too large to undertake. So you avoid it. But then comes some liberating catastrophe that forces you to rebuild. In the small it might be one's computer. In the large, it might be the Eurozone. (I'm not being facetious here.)

    Great post, Trevor!