The Beauty of Nothing

For the average Harvard student, life is an endless cycle of classes, sections, meetings, practices, and study sessions that cause the days to turn into weeks that, in turn, become months. Over time, this cycle adds up to four years, during which prizes are won and resumes perfected, but all too rarely do we stop to participate in perhaps the least-practiced activity on Harvard’s campus—doing nothing. Looking back over my college career, I can’t say that my time on campus hasn’t been positively influenced by my participation in activities and classes. But as much as any lecture or activity over the past four years, my experiences with idleness have greatly shaped my time at Harvard.

In particular, one of the most memorable afternoons in my recent memory did not take place in a classroom or with a team, but instead took place on the grass outside of Memorial Church. There, for upwards of six hours, a friend and I sat with no purpose whatsoever. Occasionally we would watch tourists engage in far-too-racy public displays of affection right in front of us or friends shout out to each other as they pass through the Yard en route to yet another meeting. We even gathered up the energy at one point to drag ourselves to Chipotle, a decision we later regretted. For most of the time, however, we just sat and talked. It was probably six of the least productive hours of my Harvard career, but also six of the most memorable. Sure, neither of us bolstered our resumes that day or accomplished anything worthy of a prize, but that afternoon still sticks out as one of my best of the past four years.

Undoubtedly, some will reject any suggestion that they engage in the active pursuit of idleness, especially here at Harvard. As students, it seems that we feel that, unless we are late for one activity while typing a response paper on our BlackBerry, we are lacking purpose. For many, idleness represents a waste of precious minutes better spent involved in yet another campus activity. But without those purposeless moments spent with friends on the banks of the Charles River, I would not have been able to appreciate the significance of my other activities here over the past four years. Indeed, the very act of doing nothing is what reminds us that doing something is fulfilling. If we, as students, spend all of our time running from activity to activity, we fail to see where our true passions lie. Moreover, we run the risk of burning out by the time we reach graduation, rendering our time here at Harvard useless.

Doing nothing has been one of my greatest pastimes over the past four years, and I unequivocally endorse its practice to those students who have yet to embrace it. Before you graduate, make sure to find those activities on campus that make you happy and those subjects that interest you, but also make sure to find time to do none of the above. These respites from busyness and thinking may seem like a waste of time, but when you look back upon graduation these will not only stick out as some of your most memorable moments, but will also make you appreciate the importance of everything else you’ve done at Harvard. And so, the next time you find yourself with an afternoon free of commitments, don’t worry about what you could be doing. Instead, find yourself a spot to do nothing for a few hours. And when you’re done with that, get back to the real world.

Peter W. Tilton ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House.

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