By Anthony Gambrill
"What are you doing today, darling?" asked the wife.
"Nothing," said the husband.
"But you did that yesterday," the wife pointed out.
"Yes, but I didn't finish," the husband replied.
In fact, doing nothing is very hard to do, because how do you know when you are finished? And what is nothing anyway?
Clearly, nothing is misunderstood.
The early philosophers took nothing very seriously. In their epistemological debates, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and others were determined to make something out of nothing. While the easiest definition of nothing is that it is the absence of existence, the philosophers pointed out that since it can be discussed, it has to be something. But then, isn't it a philosopher's job - like it is a politician's - to make something out of nothing?
Nothing plays an important part in our daily lives. If you are a parent, you probably remember calling out to your own child in another room, "What are you doing?" And if the reply was "nothing", you could be sure your child was up to no good.
We use nothing in everyday conversation for a variety of purposes. There is more than a suggestion of bravado in the expression 'nothing ventured, nothing gained'. 'Think nothing of it' defines a generous, selfless gesture. In days past, whispering 'sweet nothings' into a young woman's ear was a seductive opening gambit, just as 'saying nothing' often captures the essence of a political speech.
It is expected of a wit like Oscar Wilde to have declared, "I love to talk about nothing. It's the only thing I know anything about." As far as doing nothing, Oscar proclaimed, "To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual." A less cynical man said: "There's no pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is having lots to do and not doing it."
But before revealing how to make nothing a vital part of your life, here are a few examples of how something as important as nothing has been hijacked.
nothing in the internet
The Internet won't disappoint. You can Google nothing to get to a site that, in an elaborate spoof, says, "We'll do nothing to help you right from the start. If you don't like our service, we'll do nothing until we get it right. Anyone can offer nothing, but we'll deliver." You may have experienced a variation of this from a public utility or cable company in your neighbourhood.
A more serious campaign to engage nothing to deliver a political message is also vying for our attention on the Web. This one calls for us to challenge the entrenched values of capitalism by buying nothing. It is, of course, an American protest movement which the organisers claim to have exported to more than 60 countries already, and US Thanksgiving is the day they expect to do the most damage at the cash register.
How do you buy nothing in a supermarket? Well, apparently, you gather a group of fellow adherents and march up and down the aisles in a conga line pushing empty trolleys. Or you stand in the entrance beside your BUY NOTHING poster and offer to cut customers credit cards in half. Early feedback has not been encouraging.
A British company briefly tried to jump on the nothing bandwagon by offering to sell you a vial (empty) of nothingness as the perfect gift for people who insist on saying they want nothing for their birthday, Christmas, graduation, bar mitzvah, and so on.
A more enjoyable Internet offering carries a two-minute recording of waves crashing on the shore while the message on the screen advises you to relax, remove your hands from the computer keyboard, and think of nothing.
Frivolous as this may seem, an even more frivolous miscarriage of appreciation for nothing can or could be found on the road between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Here, rumour has it, four drunks named a fledgling township Nothing. The four ran a gas station and a garage in the early 2000s before bankruptcy defeated them, leaving them with almost nothing to show for their enterprise.
In 2009, an optimist by the name of Mike Jensen bought a six-acre site in Nothing and parked a mobile pizza oven on a trailer hoping to attract hungry passers-by. Two years later, he, too, gave up. Today, Nothing, Arizona, is truly nothing worth speaking about.
Famous personalities have let us know how they feel about nothing. Bob Dylan, for instance, looked on the bright side and sang, "When you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose." Remember George Gershwin's musical Porgy & Bess? Our hero declares, "I've got plenty of nothing and nothing's plenty for me."
Albert Einstein gave nothing a humorous (for him) slant when he wrote, "Once you accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy."
Art to nothing
But do not take nothing lightly. There is an art to doing nothing. It can be as simple as sitting or lying down in a quiet place, clearing your mind of all thought and not moving a single part of your body. Close your eyes, slow down your breathing until you feel your breath entering your body and filling your lungs and then exiting through your mouth. Do NOT meditate. Your objective is to do absolutely nothing. Practise this for five to 10 minutes every day.
The serious student of doing nothing can also explore other ways of achieving perfect nothing by mastering relaxation techniques. Doing nothing should immeasurably increase your enjoyment of life.
Your day will end in harmony if you follow the old Spanish proverb which says, 'How perfect it is to do nothing and rest afterwards.'
One last, so to speak, historical note.
The British are always putting plaques on buildings to remind us how many important people lived in their country and how many historical events took place there. One, I recall, was on a house in Lambeth, London, which marked the birthplace of Captain William Bligh of breadfruit and Mutiny on the Bounty fame. My favourite, however, is a nondescript example on a nondescript building in Rye, Sussex, which states: "On this site on September 20, 1789, nothing happened."
Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.