Thursday, July 5, 2012

On being busy (or...not)

Last week, I read a piece in The New York Times that I haven't been able to stop thinking about. Titled "The 'Busy' Trap," it examined the culture of "busyness" and the premium our society places on always having something to do, always going going going.

"If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence."

The article struck a chord with me, but not because I'm one of the busy ones. In fact, I'm decidedly the opposite. 

"I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know."

Much of the time, I'm not really busy at all. Because I like it that way, and I actively schedule free time into my week. But I often find myself telling people I'm busy, however, not because I particularly care myself that I'm not busy, but because my friends are always busy--and always talking about it--and by comparison I feel lazy. Like they are somehow "better" or "more fulfilled" or something. I hadn't even realized that until I read the article.  "How've you been?" people ask me. "Oh, you know. Busy. Lots going on," I'll respond without thinking.

Sure, there are times of year where I am truly, legitimately busy. But more often than not, I have plenty of free time. 

I like idleness. I always have, and I think it's largely because of my love of reading. My idleness is never really all that idle, because there's always a book to read (or a DVR'd Modern Family to watch, or a crossword to do), and that is--to me--enjoyable. Yes, it's leisure time, but I also view reading as educational and a sort of personal growth. And more than that, it's healthy.

The Times article pleased me a lot, not just because it removes the negative stigma from idleness, but because it frames it as a key component in mental health.

"Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

Anyway, it's a compelling argument that made me stop and think (and a lot of other people too, apparently--it made its way around Facebook like wildfire, and it received over 800 comments on the Times website). What about you? Are you the go-go-go type, or do you revel in idleness?

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