Dianne Hales is the author of La Passione: How Italy Seduced the World; La Bella Lingua, a New York Times best-seller; and Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, an Amazon best book of the year. She received a knighthood, with the title of Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana, for her contributions to promoting the Italian language. You can download her most recent book, “A” Is for Amore, for free at diannehales.com.
A few years ago while I was sitting on a beach in Southern Italy, I noticed a man kicking a soccer ball down the shoreline. He kicked it a few feet at a time, nothing too strenuous, just a nice bit of play in the middle of a glorious sunny afternoon. It struck me as unusual that this man would take the time to do this. It was as if he had all the time in the world at his disposal and the only thing he cared about at that moment was kicking that soccer ball.
The explanation for his behaviour then occurred to me. He had developed the abilty to practice l’arte di non fare niente. This is an Italian expression which translates as the art of doing nothing. Ah, dolce far niente! It is also known as the sweetness of doing nothing. Now let’s ponder this for a moment or two.
Such poetic phrases, aren’t they? In the United States we refer to this as killing time, a crude and brutal term that implies wastefulness. Yes, we are a nation of overachievers and multi-taskers. Now don’t get me wrong, I can multi- task with the best of them, but every so often I think of that man, kicking that soccer ball, and I yearn for a little down time of my own.
A term such as “the art of doing nothing” implies something more than sitting in a Lazyboy in front of a television set. It demands more from us. The art of doing nothing and doing it well could be realized in many ways.
For some it may be reached by drinking wine on the deck while listening to the cicadas or by lingering over several cups of coffee with an old friend. No box wine or instant coffee will do. For some it may be accomplished by sipping tea by the fire, with a cat softly purring nearby, or by watching a baby sleep. For others the art is practiced by taking the time to share a story or two with the locals at the market. People-watching at the piazza, a swing at the park, and making animal creatures from play dough would all qualify.
I know what you are thinking. None of the above mentioned things are nothing, and they are indeed something. L’arte di non fare niente implies spontaneity and doing a thing for nothing more than the pleasure of doing it. The man on the beach was not out to refine his technique, burn carbs, or impress the ladies. He was kicking that ball for no other reason that the sheer enjoyment of his solitary movement along the water’s edge, and that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.