And Nothing Happens

There’s an episode of the TV show The Gilmore Girls where Lorelai and Rory introduce Rory’s boyfriend to the 1950s-1960s sitcom The Donna Reed Show as part of their weekly pizza movie night.

Rory explains the show to Dean by telling him that her favorite episode “is when their son, Jeff, comes home from school, and nothing happens.” Lorelai concurs, saying, “oh, that’s a good one. One of my favorites is when Mary, the daughter, gets a part-time job, and nothing happens.” Rory agrees that it’s “another good one” and a “real classic.”

When Dean asks what the current episode is about, Lorelai explains it’s “filled with intrigue” as “Alex, the husband, comes home late for dinner, and he didn’t call.” Essentially, again, nothing happens.

Lorelai and Rory proceed to engage in full-on snark, making fun of the show, but I have to confess that I kind of like nothing happening.

Nothing happening is why I like Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels, set in modern Edinburgh, Scotland.

I began the series with different expectations, thinking that Isabel was an amateur detective. Isabel has a Ph.D. in philosophy and edits a journal. Her “detective” work, though, doesn’t at all fit the bill of typical detective fiction as mostly she uses her philosophy to solve everyday sorts of problems for people who come to her for help. There’s no mind-bending murder with Isabel in constant danger. In the most recent book, for example, she tries to understand the estrangement between an adult son and his parents.

That’s it. Nothing happens.

I loved Edinburgh the one time I visited, and McCall Smith makes the city like a character, which I greatly appreciate. I enjoy getting into Isabel’s head as she loses the threads of conversations because she’s prone to philosophizing over even a random comment.

It all feels quite soothing and normal to experience as nothing — or very little — happens even as, alas, I feel anxious about my own life when nothing much is happening.

I’m prone to calculate with a great deal of guilt and worry what I accomplish each day. I’ll tick off a list in my head (in addition to the written one in my calendar), not only to give myself a sense of where the day went but in an evaluative manner as if I must account for all of my time.

Some of that comes from my job where I do a lot of “invisible” unscheduled work, grading papers on a Friday night, for example. Some of it is a product of being American where we are prone to overwork. Some may come from having grown up Methodist. The founder of Methodism in the eighteenth century, John Wesley, was so methodical that the name Methodist was meant as an insult that he instead embraced as he attempted to figure out the exact amount of sleep he needed and no more because time spent sleeping was less time for God’s work.

In contrast, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastics talk about the importance of aimlessness as one of the three doors of liberation from suffering. If we are always on the clock, always doing, when are we truly free? When can we find time to breathe mindfully?

We don’t have to earn a rest. For our well-being, we need nothing to happen sometimes.

Much to Lorelai and Rory’s horror, Dean embraces the nothing happens domestic bliss of Donna Reed, saying, “it all seems kind of nice” and “she looks really happy.”

They both point out that Donna Reed’s happiness is scripted, which is true.

Perhaps, however, if we script our own lives less and allow for a bit of nothing, we can be happier too, though, unlike Donna Reed, I won’t be wearing high heels. I prefer aimlessness and running shoes.

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Kathryn Duncan

Kathryn Duncan

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Kathryn Duncan is an English professor and author of the book Jane Austen and the Buddha: Teachers of Enlightenment.