I believe “fish in a barrel” is the phrase that applies here. The NY Times’ Opinionator has been running an ongoing series about anxiety that has provided more than a little fodder for us, and this past week’s may be the apex, Tim Kreider’s column, “The Busy Trap.” It’s really worth reprinting in its entirety. Essentially, Kreider outlines one of the most transparent and potent expressions of The Law (i.e. who you must be/what you must do/how you must do it) in our cultural context: busyness. Perhaps more than anything else in modern American life, busyness serves as an almost universal barometer of identity and, therefore, self-justification, feeding on itself and fostering an environment of collective distraction at best, misery at worst. And Kreider hammers these points home in a convincing and highly articulate fashion. As we are fond of saying, everyone is religious, not just those who believe in God or go to church; “works righteousness” is the default mode of human operation, not just the select few who identify as religious, ht CB, SZ & JC:
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.”
Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.
The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Not long ago I Skyped with a friend who was driven out of the city by high rent and now has an artist’s residency in a small town in the south of France. She described herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college — she has a big circle of friends who all go out to the cafe together every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
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.
The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment… Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do. But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play. My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.
Only possible bone to pick is that while I’m certainly familiar with the NYC-specific element he mentions, I’m not so sure the blame should be placed solely on geography, as Kreider’s friend apparently does. The addiction to “doing doing doing” (and its less talked about companion, the fear of downtime/rest) is predominantly an internal phenomenon, is it not? People who need to be busy to feel valuable – i.e. you and me – will find ways to make themselves busy no matter where they are. And it may not feel like much of a conscious decision. Which Kreider implies, regardless of how he may frame it in his own life. Also, his thoughts on idleness as it relates to creativity and writing are highly reminiscent of Frannie Lebowitz, eh?
In honor of the article–and since blogging itself is so endemic of this diagnosis–we’ll be taking the day off from posting tomorrow (July 4th). If only it were so easy to get our internal taskmasters to take a vacation as well…
But to tide you over, I was struck by how much Kreider’s words resonate with the sermon I preached (to myself) yesterday on waiting. A big hat-tip (HT) to RJ Heijmen, who I plagiarized pretty significantly:
p.s. We’ve recently doubled the size of the sermon archive on the Resources page. You may have to dig a little, but there’s a lot there!