524: Today, When I Could Do Nothing

524: Today, When I Could Do Nothing

524: Today, When I Could Do Nothing


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

It doesn’t seem that human beings are built to do nothing. It feels like we were built to build things, to work, to make products, to consume products, to send emails, to make art, to attend to social media, to scroll, and scroll, to binge watch, to binge eat, to worry, obsess, and to make improvements in our lives, to make forward momentum.

My dog, in contrast, she seems like she’s built for doing nothing. She does nothing like it’s her job. She naps with a focused concentration that’s enviable. She stares at the trees that line the backyard like they’re all there is. But even when I claim to be wasting time, I am usually doing something, reading, watching, worrying. 

During the early days of the pandemic, many of us had to rethink what doing nothing looked like. If we weren’t essential workers, we had to remember what it was to feel no longer useful, no longer needed. We had to come to terms with the fact that the best thing we could do was... nothing. To stay home, to walk the block, to avoid the mall, the movie theater, the grocery store. We had to avoid each other. Even our loved ones. Doing nothing felt like a hard job for some. I for one, like being useful, I like feeling useful. But my job was to stay home.

In today’s poem, we see how a luminous poet can turn the act of doing nothing into an act of connection, how doing nothing can actually translate into close attention to the life that’s all around us. What do we miss when we are always in a rush to the next thing? What do we miss when we are always doing, doing, doing? 

Sometimes, what we miss is a small act of tenderness, a simple act of care for another living thing, a moment of stillness. This poem seems to tell us that doing nothing can mean changing what we value and how we honor our lives.

Today, When I Could Do Nothing
by Jane Hirshfield

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer—warm—
then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand, 
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this. 

"Today, When I Could Do Nothing" by Jane Hirshfield, copyright © 2021 Jane Hirshfield, from HOW TO LOVE THE WORLD, edited by James Crews.