Doing Nothing

There is a stigma against people who are perceived to be “doing nothing.” The greatest fear that most adults have, vis-a-vis children enrolled in Sudbury Valley, is that those children will do nothing. These fears arise from the failure to see just how little “nothing” people actually do here. When those people are already disrespected (as children are in the wider culture) the very idea of those people doing nothing is treated with contempt and fear.

To begin with, there are misunderstandings that come when the word “nothing” is used instead of the more complete and accurate response: “nothing that would make any sense to someone who doesn’t have the same level of knowledge and caring that I do about the particular set of interests, questions, ideas, concerns, events, places and things on which I spend my energy.” When adults tell other adults that they’re doing “nothing,” everyone assumes it is a polite way to avoid a great deal of effort describing things of limited interest. But it’s clear that few adults understand that word in the same way when it’s said by children.

Some of the “nothing” that people agonize over is clearly “something.” For example, conversation with other people is often minimized as just “shooting the breeze.” In fact, all such connections are part of broadening horizons, gaining insight from others around by examining how they see the world, and trying out ideas and thoughts with other people.

When looking at items published by the school about exciting things going on, one can watch fascinating videos about students making gingerbread houses, music, art, justice and legislation.This all looks like something. One reads about hikes, camping trips, construction projects, weddings, snow tubing. One sees photos of skating, skiing, dances, printmaking, fishing and intense work of every kind. Something each time.

But some of the most important and intense work will never make it to videos or photo albums, precisely because the work needs to be done on one’s own without interacting in any visible way with people or the world around. Consider the following activities:

  • Meditating – letting go of worries and concerns for a little while and cleaning out one’s conscious mind.
  • Reflecting – having an internal conversation, and straightening out thoughts about things that have already passed.
  • Examining – fishing for information about the world, letting the stream of life flow by, eyes and ears open.

Because these mental activities are private, and how they’re practiced varies from individual to individual, we never know for sure what is going on. This only adds to the impression that people engaging in these activities are “doing nothing.”

Yes, there is always a lot of buzz in the school. There are always happenings. There are always things to do. But I want to offer my thanks to the school for being a place where so much that seems to be “nothing” can happen without interference.

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