Another missive from the busy trap. This one comes from Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. In the age of humblebragging, about the achievements you’ve undergone, the vacations you’ve eye-rollingly sped through, the go-gurt you’ve got jammed in the glove compartment, Schulte reminds us that this talk is all about the righteousness of purpose which, in the modern parlance, is held up by the metric of time. And, she notes, it’s not just for the frenzied East Coast corporate lawyer–people in North Dakota are crunched, too. She takes a trip to Fargo (the real Fargo) to see more. She goes to lunch with stress “focus group leader” Ann Burnett and her mentees (including Deb Dawson).
As the fried cheese poppers and Diet Coke arrive, Burnett asks the group she’s convened what drives their busyness. Being busy makes them feel productive and important, they say. Admitting you take time for yourself is tantamount to a show of weakness. The thought of leisure time makes them feel…guilty.
“It’s like everything has to have a purpose,” muses Dawson, fifty-nine, marveling at how the leisure of so many retired people she knows sounds so exhausting, all the golf they make a point of telling her they play, the traveling they do. “Maybe it justifies how you spend your time. When you’re busy, you’re saying, ‘This is who I am. I’m doing something important. I’m not just taking up space on Earth.'”
Dawson has five children, has written a memoir, made a film, runs a charity for orphans in Sudan, and travels to Africa. She used to go to the massive stone Presbyterian church downtown, as did her parents, grandparents, and great-parents. It’s only a block from her condo. She wonders if she might feel a little calmer if she went, “being in a place of God where you can regain perspective about your place in the world,” she says, “Yet I don’t seek it out. Because I’m too busy.”
On the other hand, there are countless families and individuals who do go to church (ahem), but do not find the calming spaciousness of “leisure”, but another check in another box, a leisure item completed in the good column. Leisure, as much as work, is liable to the laws of purposeful living. Maybe you’ve sat down after work recently, only to jitter back into motion, anxious about the ways you are not properly relaxing. What is to be done? Time’s badge of honor continues ticking away.
Schulte asks Ann Burnett what qualifies as an authentic use of time, with Christmas cards and family updates spiraling upward into the spheres of the competitive workplace. Burnett, who has cancer, drops a Heideggerian bomb in her lap:
“When you realize you’re going to die, you value your time more,” Burnett says.
“That,” Burnett says, “is living honestly and courageously in the moment. You’re able to step back, stop, smell the roses. Or realize the roses are even there. You recognize the past is gone. The future’s not set. You may still be busy, but you’re savoring every second of it.”
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that authentic living requires keeping both life and death in mind at all times, Burnett explains. He called it “dasein,” literally, human be-ing. Few of us are able to do it. It is, perhaps, only human nature to avoid at all costs thinking of life’s ultimate, unavoidable conclusion. Maybe that’s the attraction of busyness, she says. If we never have a moment to stop and think, we never have to face that terrifying truth.