Idle Hands

Three times in my life I have felt uncomfortable walking around. I should start here by saying I love to walk, and I believe that walking is really the best way to get to know where you are, feel the vibe, experience the culture. I have walked all over. In cities across the US, in cities throughout Europe, in Mexico outside the “tourist areas,” in small towns, and beach towns, in marginal neighborhoods and swank neighborhoods. I walk because I can, because it feels good, because you see things you would not see if you were in a car, and though I do use public transportation when I travel I am always happy to walk too. I have dragged my husband and children along for distances they did not feel like were reasonable for walking, and as a result I have something of a reputation when I suggest we just walk somewhere.

So on only three occasions in many years of walking I have felt uncomfortable. Three times I have felt like there was an undercurrent of harm in the air – not directed at me per se, just around, in the area and I started thinking about this today because one of the places I felt uncomfortable has been in the news for not great reasons. Ah, I thought to myself, I remember being there and thinking too much idle energy here, too much of not enough to do.

The first time I was in Las Vegas, my husband was at a conference and I was a tourist. It was a chance for us to kind of go away together for a few days and not an opportunity you pass up when you have small children. So I went out shopping, while he stayed in working and I decided that I would walk back to the hotel from where I had been. I emerged from the retail caverns and looked down the strip to my hotel, not far it seemed, only a handful of buildings in between. It was late afternoon and I started on my journey. I misjudged the size of the buildings and the amount of ground needed to cover the distance. The sun sank and on I walked, and the early bands of youngish men were out on the prowl, planning their adventures for the night. No one did me any harm, no one suggested anything untoward or violent. But there was something in the movement of the people on the street, something about the energy that didn’t feel like it was a good idea for me to be walking alone. I was stressed and scared and mad at myself when I got back to the hotel and I told myself I was being silly, not tough enough.

Years later I was dropping off holiday gifts for a family in need in one of the not great neighborhoods in the city where I live.  No one was out, the family was lovely, maybe it was just the sadness of barred windows and loud dogs behind chain link fence. There was a furtiveness though in the shadows, and slinking young men around corners in groups that had no where to go, and nothing to do and I felt that I was intruding on discontent. I wanted to leave and that made me sad.

Two summers ago I spent a week in Brussels. I was in the city center, ten minutes from the main square and the major tourist destinations and it was an easy walk to get there. But for about five minutes of the walk, until you got to the more populated malls and old square attractions you walked along blocks of government buildings and offices and not much of interest to anyone but the people who work there. There were young men in groups, doing nothing, going nowhere, standing and smoking and talking low or talking loud and spitting and shuffling restlessly and I wrote to my husband to say I had never understood why we are so eager to find wars to fight until now when I saw so many people with so much undirected energy and it became clear to me why we ship our boys away when we don’t have anything else for them to do. I am not advocating war, I just understood a social phenomena in a way I didn’t before I felt that deep, palpable discomfort.

I like to give my son, who is nearing sixteen, lots of chores to do. He has football, and homework, and when he is done with that I fill him up on garbage detail, emptying the dishwasher, changing the laundry, just enough to keep the amount of time he has to do nothing to a minimum. He is a good kid, I don’t think he would do anything really bad, but I also think it is good to feel that you have a purpose, that you contribute in some way, that you are needed. Mostly when he has nothing to do he plays video games, but when he has nothing to do for too long it is hard to get him to do anything – it’s a cycle and it breeds a malcontent nature. That’s what the Puritans thought too, and though I don’t think they were right about everything I think they pretty much nailed this one.

Some people came out of a neighborhood I was only a short walk from a couple of years ago, and they did terrible things and now we are all wringing our hands saying how does this kind of thing happen. How do people become radicalized? How do we stop them? Radicalization is something to do, it is a purpose, it is a goal and when you have nothing else, well, being treated like you have something to contribute might feel pretty good. Let me say again to be clear: I am not condoning the actions, I am not an advocate of war.

If idle hands are the devils tool then it is up to all of us to keep people busy, to find a way for them to make positive contributions, to create a world in which we all having something good to offer, or we might was well go ahead and put boots on the ground somewhere else, since we have nothing else to offer.

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