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On not doing things

A friend of mine used to maintain that if a letter remained long enough on one's desk unanswered it did not in the end need to be answered. There was, in his view, a certain natural life given to letters: some lived breifly, some long; but all in due course ceased to have a vital being. The business expired, the gossip grew stale, the writer moved or passed from hearing. At some point, sooner or later, the letter could be consigned to the file or the wastebasket.

This discovery, my friend averred, had saved him, during a long life, a tremendous amount of time. Without wanting wholly to support his heretical view (or his sometimes erratic conduct), I would go so far as to argue that virtue resides in not always being too faithful to small details. If one thinks of the great men and women of the world -- those who have performed prodigies, who have won battles and discovered new worlds -- one sees them all as having had a sort of headlong bearing. They must have got on with one task before the last was quite accomplished and moved in the midst of an incipient disorder. I cannot imagine Mme. Curie or Sr. Marconi stopping in their quests to set straight a picture on the wall that was slightly tilted, or to sweep dust from an unobserved corner.

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A secretary I once had, herself an example of heroic labor, used to sigh with admiration at the end of some busy hours. "My, Mr. Heckscher," she would say, "we have accomplished a lot today."

"Don't be silly, Audrey." I would respond. "You know perfectly well that all we have done is to answer a lot of letters that should never have been written in the first place. The world would never have missed them had we tossed them out the window."

The very thought shocked her. But I could not get out of my head the conviction that the days that counted were those on which an action was initiated, not merely reacted to; that a man was better employed pushing somewhat brusquely ahead than in stopping to pick up little pieces along the way. I would think of my old headmaster, Dr. Drury, at St. Paul's: "There is no sanctity," he liked to warn, "in sticking to a small job and trying to dignify it by dogged perseverance." And when he felt coming over him what he called "the dingy, dowdy disposition," he scrawled in his diary: "Alarum, O my soul -- for you are betrayed!"

Now, in the summertime, a certain amount of fussing over small things is to be tolerated and even encouraged. A stray weed picked from the flower bed is an acceptable diversion from the larger tasks of life. In my printing office, a spell of tidying things up -- putting a few odd pieces of type back in their cases or gathering the flood of disused paper that always seems to be lying about -- certainly does no harm. The garden grows at its own pace in its own way -- despitem one's efforts, as much as becausem of them; while in the printer's head, as he toddles idly about his shop, emerge images of the mighty folios he will one day roll off the press.

Indeed, I would argue that one major justification for not doing things is that details are, ultimately, the better settled because we have waited. Like the letters one doesn't answer, many of the small troubles of the world loe their urgency; many of its problems solve themselves. I have tried sometimes to force myself into an endeavor, severely judging what I believed to be an annoying laziness. But while I delayed, unknown to me, some inner wisdom was accumulating drop by drop; some unapprehended fact was falling into place.

The virtue of not doing things may belong peculiarly to summer. With autumn come a different mood and challenge. To be idle and energetic by turns, and according to the season, may be the best rule. But even when we are busiest, some little residue of laziness serves us in good stead. A little neglect of detail may make us more productive and keep our dispositions the more amenable.