Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There
Turning Old Clichs to New Maxims
By Richard Eyre

Part Four

Read Part One Here
Read Part Two Here
Read Part Three Here

“Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something!”

This is an especially touchy column because it was my mother-in-law who always said this one.  (Also, it is the one that the title for this ongoing column was taken from so it better be good!)

Dont just sit there, do something.  Now, dont misunderstand.  She liked me, my mother-in-law did she still likes me, I hope.  She will still like me after she reads this column, I think.  She didn’t single me out for the advice.  She said it to everyone.  “Be up and doing!”  “Get off your duff!”  “Be active!”  “Dont let any moss grow under your feet!”  Even, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” And she said it by example as well as with words.  If there was ever anyone more active than my grandmother, it is my mother-in-law.  Sitting down is just not part of her modus operandi.  She is eight-five as I write this and can still beat me at bowling!  (Or weeding a garden, or practically anything else we ever happen to do together.)

Well, it is better to be “up and doing” than to be down and drooping.  No question.  Always has been, always will be.

But something has changed!  We have evolved into a society where there is so much going on that we are always acting and doing, sometimes at the expense of thinking and feeling.

In a less urban, less mechanized, less complex and competitive time, there were natural seasons and periods of reflection and repose.  There were natural “breaks” after the planting or after the harvest, and when it got dark at night, work was done.

Not so today!  We may have business cycles, but none of them involved rest.  We have weekends, but they’re usually the time to do the work we couldn’t get to during the week.  And we have evenings, but the night belongs to homework with the kids, or to working overtime, or to trying to “play as hard as we work.”


One evening, after a particularly long and hectic day, I was eating a late meal by myself in the kitchen and overhearing Linda’s discussion in the living room with our fourteen-year-old Josh.

He was saying that he’d had a tough day, too, starting with his five a.m. paper route and two tests in school.  Linda was reminding him that his piano lesson was tomorrow and he hadn’t practiced and that the dishwasher (his job) was still unemptied.  He was telling his mother that he had some math homework to do and he had to finish a scout merit-badge requirement before next week’s Court of Honor, but that the most important basketball game of the year was going into the second half on TV.  He also mentioned that he’d promised his friend, Chad, that he’d go over and see his new computer game.

Linda, being my mother-in-law’s daughter, offered her usual advice, but in her frustration with her own and her son’s busyness, it came out backward:

“Well, don’t just do something sit there!”

I went in and joined them for a good laugh, but as our amusement subsided, we realized that under the circumstances, the reversed clich was better advice than the original.

Josh had more to do than he possibly could do that night (just as most of us have more to do than we can most of the time), and rather than just doing something, what he needed to do was to sit there for a few minutes and decide what mattered most or figure out some way to get some things done now and some later.


We sometimes let ourselves get infected with the notion that any action is preferable to any inaction, that doing is superior to thinking, that doing something anything is better than occasionally doing nothing at all so we can sit and think instead.

In a world where there is an endless number of things to do, we can become fanatic, frantic, whirlwinds of activity working ourselves to an exhausted frazzle each day and yet looking back over the weeks and months and not being able to see much progress.  Like someone sawing furiously with a dull saw, we keep doing something and tire and stress ourselves, never taking time to just sit there and sharpen our saw.

We need the new maxim that Linda coined by the slip of her tongue:       


Sit there long enough each morning to decide what is really important during the day ahead.  Sit there long enough once or twice during the day to collect your thoughts, to meditate for a moment, to calm your mind and regain perspective.  Sit there on a child’s bed once in a while at bedtime and just listen to him.  Sit there and watch a sunset rather than just doing something.

Thoughtful “sitting there” is rapidly becoming a lost art, stomped out by trying to do something every minute.

Reversing this old clich in our minds can give us a new maxim that slows us down, tunes us in, and makes us more selective and more purposeful in the things we choose to do.


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