“Do nothing and nothing remains undone.”
– Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Fifteen years ago I played hooky from life for a few weeks. I got on my bicycle on an island in the northwest corner of America and aimed myself at an island in the southeast corner. I was trying to do a new version of nothing, a simple monotonous chore in place of the multitude of tasks required of a homeowner. I was retired, but I was spending most of my time tending stuff. I wanted to spend some time tending me. I did a lot of nothing, and something happened. I changed my life, and found optimism in the world.
It doesn’t seem like fifteen years. It seems more like fifteen decades. The other side of middle age feels that way. Fifteen years ago was also one year before 9/11. The world was different then. In 2000, I finished the ride from Roche Harbor on San Juan Island to Pensacola – Washington to Florida (with a quick trip home from Ponca City, OK). I finished the ride. Finally listened to my friends, and wrote the first drafts of Just Keep Pedaling, my first book which continues to be one of my best sellers. But, I wasn’t satisfied. I hadn’t ended at an island in the southeast corner; so, I decided to finish the book by finishing the ride by returning to Florida in the fall of 2001. About when I was ready to leave, 9/11 happened. Everything stood still. My plans were discretionary so I purposely decided to not fly until the displaced people got home. Finally, in October, I returned to Pensacola and bicycled to Key West breathing humidity I could see, through smoke from the burning sugar fields, and had to dance with a hurricane before I reached my goal.
When I returned, I wasn’t just writing about a bike ride. I’d witnessed a shift in America’s psyche. Paranoia escalated. So did xenophobia. I rode through a scared Florida of emptied hotels and uncertain people. It was a sad time, but I trusted that we’d recover.
Within a year, Just Keep Pedaling was published. It was my first book, with a relatively unfiltered perspective on pre- and post- 9/11 coloring my narrative of America’s various cultures.
Now, in 2015, a lot has changed. I’ve written several more books; but the bigger changes are in our country and culture. The Internet Bubble popped. We launched ourselves into a new type of war, and spent heavily to do so. The economy was fragile, and then The Great Recession hit. Now, there’s much less certainty about national security, financial security, and environmental security – and we’re uncertain about where we’ll find the resources for the new fights.
I’ve also had a divorce and my Triple Whammy. That’s another source of uncertainties, but on a personal level.
“Do nothing and nothing remains undone.” That’s a fine bit of wisdom that runs counter to conventional Western wisdom; “Hard work will set you free.”
As with all pithy phrases, the reality requires a bit of pragmatism. Do absolutely nothing, and die because you didn’t eat or drink. Work 24 hours a day every day, and die because we are only human. Reality is in the middle.
There’s an ease to following intuition, trusting to the world, and not going to extremes. I bicycled across America. I didn’t do it by sitting on the bike in the driveway. I didn’t do it by never stopping (despite the title). I trusted my intuition, rode across America, and thought nothing had happened. I went to lose weight; but didn’t lose any pounds, percentage body fat, or notches on my belt – and that was with missing meals because some towns are smaller than most imagine.
It wasn’t until months or years later that the changes percolated through. While I was on the ride I became much more tolerant of variations in American culture, partly because they were tolerant of me (except somewhat less so in Salt Lake City, Kansas, and Arkansas.) After months, my attitude about my creative skills changed. I saw the political reactions to foreigners with a greater awareness of how little contact most of America has with anything non-American. It has become apparent that we are an impressive country and culture that is not cohesive but continuing to mature with some lingering adolescent attitudes.
Most people didn’t know what was happening forty miles from their homes (the typical distance between towns). Some days I rode twice that distance and saw things they’d missed because it was more than an hour’s drive. They didn’t explore because they didn’t have to – unless that was where the nearest Wal-Mart was. That may sound like a joke, but the things most likely to get someone out of town was either shopping for discounts or visiting friends. Even people that didn’t like where they were didn’t travel because they just assumed the next town was just as bad.
They weren’t ‘doing nothing’. They were doing the exact same thing, perpetually.
Playing hooky isn’t doing nothing, but it is doing nothing about the things that supposedly matter. Push on something hard enough for long enough; and, if it isn’t moving, you deserve a break; and, by taking a break, you may find that you’d already nudged it enough for it to move slowly on its own, or that you were pushing in the wrong direction.
There were a pair of angels in Oregon, and they gave me one. They ran a small convenience store on the edge of onion fields that border the Snake River and Idaho. The longer version of the story is in the book (naturally) but the short version was this: They didn’t try to go out and evangelize to change the world. They didn’t even evangelize when people walked in the door. Despite having to work three jobs each, they spent time listening to customers, finding what the customer truly needed (even if it had nothing to do with what was on their shelves), and providing what they could. For one young, uncertain fellow, they bought things from him instead of telling him to buy things from them. He needed a start to his business, and they provided that. For me, they gave me an angel to carry on my bike. It was a kitchen magnet, but the intention wasn’t trivial.
The angel is broken now. Tiny sculptures don’t survive bicycle tools bags for thousands of miles. Think it trivial if you will, but I didn’t have an accident in over 3,800 miles of riding. To them, it was a little bit of nothing with a big intent. They’ve probably forgotten me, but they’re bit of nothing is something that I remember every time I see the angel on my shelf. Our most influential actions don’t have to be grand gestures, epic struggles, public demonstrations. Our most influential actions can be something that feels like doing nothing. Our most influential actions may be to take a break and let our previous energies carry us through. Do nothing, and nothing remains undone.