The importance of being idle

Last Updated on Friday, 8 October, 2021 at 2:46 pm by Andre Camilleri

Luca Cachia-Morena is a co-founder at Elephant & Cross, a start-up that works alongside world leading course providers and universities in order to connect people with the best courses for their needs.

I have a coffee at the same café on Pjazza Castille whenever I can.

The espresso there is lovely: served in a thick cup with a generous crema, but that’s not why I go. The best feature of the café is its arrangement right on the square: basically, house seats to the best people-watching on the island.

The most interesting act of the Castille play is the impending arrival of some ministru. The first sign is the appearance of a Transport Malta employee. He enters the stage with an IQ measured in fractions and a considerable number of barricades informing would-be parkers that “This parking spot is reserved for the minister”.

The barricades are placed around several parking spots, creating a perfect vortex of protection in anticipation of the ministerial arrival. This, however, is only the beginning of the employee’s mandate to protect the Ministerial parking. He now acts as a sort of Swiss Guard, patrolling his domain to ensure that no enemies of the State would consider placing their sacrilegious vehicles near the Holy Spot.

A few weeks ago, the guard must have left his post and returned to find an unauthorised non-ministerial car parked in the ecclesiastical position. This was, of course, an extremely disturbing development. The car was an ancient Hyundai, not the sort of thing usually found wearing GM plates.

The man immediately began to go through the stages of grief, but quickly settled on anger. He swivelled towards the café, where I was sat in the audience, and in classic pantomime fashion began demanding the identity of the offending parker (in a terrible scream). The barista informed him that she had no idea what he was on about and returned inside.

The employee must have identified this as a slight and became violently agitated. I watched him perform an almost perfect goose-step to the staff entrance door of the café and begin to slap it violently while screeching about parking spots and ministers. The sharp blows of this man savaging a door and screaming reverberated around Castille Place at a volume only experienced by members of AC/DC.

The piazza was transfixed. The audience was a collective; we were all captivated by this character – this man-turned-siege-engine – as he ramped up his attacks on the café. Why it was decided that the café, as a building, was to blame remains a mystery, but I suppose he must have had an instinct for that sort of thing. This lasted several minutes (an impressive physical feat) before a police officer eventually calmed him down.

This was an interesting day… most of the time nothing happens when I’m having a coffee, which is exactly how I like it. It is a moment of pure rest. Recently, however, I’ve found myself scrolling through Instagram instead. It’s unsettling how quickly my time seems to get eaten up this way. The pjazza is right there with its tableau of characters, but the need to check my phone, the need to be entertained, to do something, feels like a biological imperative.

This, then, is likely to be the true victim of the human-screen cybernetic relationship: our idle time, defined as time spent doing nothing, exclusively.

Why should you care? It doesn’t look like a big loss. There are probably more exciting things on your phone than can be found at any hour on Pjazza Castille, so why not just get sucked in and forget about it? I can clog every lull in my day with a sort of makeshift activity. I don’t need to stop for a moment ever again.

I’ve realised that the time spent on my phone during those precious moments when I’m not working or stuck in traffic cannot be called a “break”. Our new entertainment is uniquely bad at letting us relax because it demands constant interaction. It deprives us of our purest form of rest and replaces it with frenetic scrolling activity. In essence, more work.

Idle time is important. Without it, there is no distinction between one activity and the next; it all feels like a single wall of noise. Idleness reminds me that the music is in the silence between the notes; it tells me that there is no need for a synthetic urgency to punctuate my day.

The role that doing nothing plays in enriching our lives is best understood by people of the meditation variety (but they can be a bit weird, so the point gets lost). Perhaps we can re-brand meditation into something more appealing to people with less than three eyes, as a sort of focused idleness. Like having a coffee on Pjazza Castille… alone and without a screen. I urge you to try it.

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