This castle hath a pleasant seat

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself’. I remember that haiku from my university days. It was written by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, and for obvious reasons, it justified my penchant for sitting alone, my back propped up by a tree in the forest, and my ears awake to the sound of birds singing to the breeze riffling through the leaves like applause in a concert hall. I suppose it wasn’t the intended benefit my parents wanted me to receive from a university education, but for me it was a gift; it was permission just to sit and think, to sit and absorb.

Doing nothing was anathema when I was a child; I was taught at school that it was not only purposeless, but also a waste of time. I was never entirely sure how it was being wasted, but, as my mother used to say about most things, ‘Time and Tides wait for no one’ -an odd statement for those of us in Winnipeg, smack in middle of the prairies. I had no idea what Tides had to do with anything -or, for that matter, even what capital-T ‘Tides’ were. But my mother was like that, and would capitalize anything if she wanted attention.

Then, when I finally escaped to university, a health scare about sitting began to saturate the papers in defiance of Basho. Sitters, it was claimed, had a higher incidence of Cardiovascular accidents (although my mother would probably also have capitalized the ‘a’ in ‘accidents’), Diabetes, and of course Obesity. And, years later as a belated retirement present for me, the Covid pandemic with its on and off closures and restrictions of social activities elbowed its way into the public discourse. Sitting became the default activity; there’s only so long you can stand around the house without your legs walking you to a chair, a couch… or a fridge. Eyes and stomachs continually demand exercise.

I had to wonder if sitting was really as bad as we had been told. Stress is bad for you too, and it may even contribute to those cardiovascular accidents they kept talking about. I was becoming increasingly stressed by the guilt I felt every time I obeyed my legs and sat.

But, sometimes, sitting is helpful -dinner springs to mind, or if I’m trying to tie my shoelaces. And shouldn’t the fact of feeling more in control of my knife and fork while I’m securely wedged in my chair count as a plus? Or being able to hit those tiny keys on my cellphone accurately enough that it doesn’t self-correct each time I text? I always sit for that.

There are surely times when quality of existence supersedes quantity. Anyway, as Sartre points out ‘Existence precedes Essence’ -in other words, we are nothing until we become who we are through our choices and actions; I am a sitter whenever I feel like it. Period. I suppose it is often a boredom issue, but it’s still my choice, right? I mean when I’m tired of sitting, I go for a run, or a long walk… Okay, or sit under a tree just listening to the world, but I should not be guilted for choosing that -merely tolerated with a Sartrean shrug. Variety is what adds value to life (sorry, ‘Life’).

After multiple demands for visual communication on Skype or Zoom, and despite innumerable phone calls from my digitally-wary age cohorts, I tired of the screen, and the disembodied voices on the phone; I tired of feeling ashamed of sitting, and feeling the need to justify my buttocks to anybody who happened to stumble upon my contact list. But most of all, I tired of the repetitive admonitions from people trying not to let me hear the springs in their couch squeaking whenever they moved.

I suppose it’s sometimes hard not to feel embarrassed by one’s Essence, so it was with some relief that I happened upon -well, finally found– an essay that didn’t scold me for my sedentary ways. It was written jointly by Wuyou Sui in the Behavioural Medicine lab at the University of Victoria, and Harry Prapavessis, a professor of Kinesiology at Western University:

Although they both seemed well aware of the angst being felt with the Covid restrictions and were polite enough to absolve me of most of my guilt, they were also well aware of dangers involved in the Sophie’s choice of balancing health and sitting : ‘Whether sitting during transportation, work, screen time or even meals, everyday environments and activities are tailored nearly exclusively to prolonged sitting… Pre-COVID-19 estimates place the average Canadian adult’s sedentary behaviour at around 9.5 hours per day. Current daily sedentary time is likely even higher as a result of stay-at-home orders, limitations on businesses and recreational facilities, and elevated health anxieties.’ However, for many people who choose to sit, their own subjective well-being might be ‘more important and relevant for informing their health decisions and behaviours than potentially developing chronic diseases.’ I’m pretty sure the authors weren’t condoning any violation of pandemic health restrictions, though. And anyway, I had hoped to discover some variations on the theme of sitting, rather than merely re-navigating Odysseus’ route between Scylla and Charybdis and risking accusations of sloth, or whatever.

So, I chose to overlook any of the blameworthy parts and concentrate on my own confirmation biases: ‘Subjective well-being encompasses an individual’s own evaluation of their quality of life. It includes concepts like affect (positive and negative feelings) and life satisfaction.’ So, if I felt like sitting and it wasn’t actually on anyone else, then it was my choice, eh? I began to skip entire sentences in the article that I didn’t like -too much like parental stuff.

Suddenly, my eyes  spotted something. ‘…how an individual feels about their own health may not always align with what their body may demonstrate. That’s why evaluating subjective well-being is vital for painting a holistic picture of health.’ I decided not to skip that… And besides, they then began to describe what I think: ‘different domains of sedentary behaviour have unique relationships with subjective well-being.’ In other words you shouldn’t feel you always have to play your piano standing up. And the authors say it’s also okay to read sitting down -so you don’t keep losing your place, I guess. Anyway, although I can’t show it on Zoom, I’m only sedentary for a small part of the day. Quality is a big part of essence, I think.

It’s just a matter of going back to basics, like the bedtime story my father used to read to me about Goldilocks when she home-invaded the three bears: some of their porridge was too hot, some was too cold, but baby bear’s was just right, so she ate it: Life mirrors Porridge; my mother would have appreciated the capital ‘P’…


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