La Dolce far Niente (The Sweetness of Doing Nothing)

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I recently headed to the mountains of Colorado for a 5 day backpacking trip. My husband, Josh, my brother-in-law, Joe, and I finally reunited in the wilderness; I hadn’t joined the guys on a trip in over five years—pregnancy and nursing benched me for awhile.

It may seem counterintuitive to choose backpacking as a vacation, it has it’s share of challenges, but it’s so worth them all. Yes, it’s physically difficult to carry 40 lbs all day long, a health hazard to travel from sea level to 12,500 feet of elevation within 24 hours, and an emotional battle to deal with whatever life on the trail brings.

But despite the effort, risks and trials, I’m constantly pulled to the back country because I’ve experienced its redemptive power. Hope forms and healing occurs in the simple focus of putting one foot in front of another. Of having few modern distractions. Of being bathed in God’s artwork for days at a time. Of realizing how small we all are in the grand scheme.

This recent trip to Colorado’s majestic Holy Cross Wilderness was no exception.

The first couple days on the trail were difficult. The frigid cold temperatures at night (mid-20s), the altitude and resulting sickness (that’s a story in itself), the weight of our packs, running low on stove fuel too early (which meant rationing hot drinks)—I really wanted to throw in the towel and go home. But we pressed on, because that’s really the only choice when we’re miles from the comforts I was longing for. The good thing about being forced to stay out is that subjecting myself to the struggles is always worth gaining perspective.

I learned again what I always do at the mercies of a wilderness: 1. I’m not in control of anything, it’s only ever an illusion. 2. I am my best self when things are going well, and not unlike a spoiled child when they aren’t. 3. God loves us deeper than we realize and pursues us with his beauty. 4. I settle for far less than I should.

This time though, there was a significant lesson that I hadn’t encountered before on the trail…the goodness of doing nothing.

We got into camp every night with time to gather wood and build a fire. It was dark by 8pm, so watching the fire was our nighttime activity. The fires danced with metaphors and life lessons: the sacrifice of individual pieces of wood for the greater good, the necessity of consistently tending to the flames so they wouldn’t go out, the forming of the hottest embers after the flames had burned the wood long enough.

As lovely as watching the flames every night was, I felt myself squirm. I am wasting time. I wish I had a book, or a journal, or papers to grade. Something. Anything. I bemoaned the perceived inefficiency to Josh and Joe.

Joe, who has spent considerable time in Italy, mentioned a concept he discovered in the European culture. He explained, “Heids, the Italians affirm the sweetness of doing nothing. They call it la dolce far niente.” He picked up a stick and stirred the fire. As I watched embers float up toward the star-dotted sky, I started to mull it over.

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To slow down, enjoy the present moment, notice the details, resist the urge to check another box, that’s just not my nature. The juxtaposition of my life at home and life on the trail is startling. After a few days doing “nothing” for hours every night, I could feel the internal struggle to be productive, while at the same time, starting to sense that I was more in touch with myself, others, God, and my environment than I had been in a long time. It is good, sweet even, to do nothing—healing, freeing, necessary. But I am not very good at it.

I found the phrase in an online article when I got home.

In Psychology Today, Colleen Long, Psy.D., asked, “How different would your quality of life be if you made time throughout the day to experience la dolce far niente? Instead of using your free moments to catch up on what housewife bought what SUV on HULU, instead of checking your email one last time to see if anyone else is needing you to do something, instead of using your free time to check your bank accounts or pay that cell phone bill- What if you just did nothing?

Fighting that urge to just do, that puritan work ethic instilled in all of us at an early age, is just as much effort as going to the gym and doing the stair climber. Yet the results of our restraint are well worth the hassle.”

What if I did? Most of us Americans don’t embrace this, we’re on DOING overload, even as we “rest.” We watch T.V. while eating processed food and staring at our phones, and call it “down time.” But that’s not la dolce far niente, that’s distracting ourselves from reality. La dolce far niente is being in touch with the small moments happening right now and appreciating them.

Near the end of the trip, I looked down at my dusty boots while eating my oatmeal and noticed little details I rarely see. There were small green vines along the ground covered with bits of frost and the tiniest red flowers. The most beautiful, tiny red flowers, ones I would’ve missed if I wasn’t awake to my surroundings.

Now that I’m back, I wonder what I’ve been missing in my daily life of doing too much. I realize that I need to trim back my schedule and commitments and make room to cultivate la dolce far niente, because I don’t want the trail to be the only place I’m really living.

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Comments

  1. Beautifully captured
    I’m in a down time of forced rest.
    I needed the reminder that this time is not wasted.
    Thank you Heidi

    • It’s not wasted. I’m learning to let go of achievement, it’s so much more freeing to rest in Christ. Blessings, friend.