The 'Busy' Dilemma

Living in 21st-century America often means enduring a barrage of people proclaiming their overwhelming busyness.
The 'Busy' Dilemma | Amwork

When you ask someone how they're doing, you're likely to get responses like “Busy!” or “So busy!” This busyness has become the default answer, masquerading as a complaint but actually serving as a boast. And the common reaction to such claims is congratulatory, as if busyness is an enviable condition.

No one genuinely aspires to lead a life characterized by unrelenting busyness; it's a cultural phenomenon we collectively impose on one another. Interestingly, the people who genuinely have their hands full, like those working exhausting shifts in the ICU or juggling multiple minimum-wage jobs, don't often complain about being busy; they're more likely to express exhaustion.

The ones who incessantly lament their busyness are often trapped in a cycle of self-imposed obligations. They take on excessive workloads, responsibilities, and activities voluntarily. Their busyness is a result of their ambition, drive, anxiety, or addiction to constant activity, driven by a fear of confronting what lies beneath the surface.

In today's fast-paced world, it seems that everyone is overwhelmed with busyness. They feel anxious and guilty when they're not working or engaged in activities that promote their work. They schedule time with friends as if it were an appointment, akin to how students with perfect GPAs meticulously plan community service to enhance their college applications.

Even children are caught in this whirlwind of busyness, with their schedules filled to the brim with classes and extracurricular activities. They return home as drained as adults. The contrast with the author's own childhood, when unstructured, unsupervised hours provided opportunities for diverse experiences and learning, highlights the radical shift in how society perceives and values free time.

The current culture of busyness has permeated every aspect of life, but the question remains: Is it truly productive, or are we missing out on the invaluable benefits of leisure, reflection, and unstructured time that contribute to a well-rounded and fulfilling life?

The current frenzy that engulfs us isn't an inherent or unavoidable aspect of our lives; it's a condition we've willingly embraced, even if inadvertently. Recently, I had a Skype conversation with a friend who decided to escape the high rent and urban hustle by securing an artist's residency in a charming southern French town. In her new environment, she described herself as content and at ease, a stark contrast to the stress she endured in the city. Her work still gets accomplished, but it no longer devours her entire day and mental energy. Life feels reminiscent of her college days — a close-knit circle of friends gathering at the local café each evening, the resurgence of a romantic relationship. She humorously summed up dating in New York as a perpetual quest for something better, reflecting the frenetic pace of urban life. What she once believed to be her inherent personality — driven, irritable, anxious, and melancholic — turned out to be a product of her surroundings. None of us truly aspires to live this way; it's a collective pressure we impose upon ourselves.

Our frantic routines often serve as a defense against the void.

Busyness, in many ways, offers a form of existential comfort, a shield against the fear of emptiness. It's a belief that your life cannot possibly be insignificant or frivolous if you are ceaselessly occupied, fully scheduled, and in demand every waking hour. I recall an acquaintance who interned at a magazine where taking lunch breaks was discouraged, as her presence might be urgently required. This was an entertainment magazine, rendered somewhat obsolete by the advent of remote control “menu” buttons. Such pretensions of indispensability seem more like institutional self-deception. Increasingly, many individuals in our society no longer engage in hands-on, tangible work. If your job could be executed by a cat or a boa constrictor from a Richard Scarry book, it raises questions about its necessity. It's hard not to speculate whether our melodramatic fatigue is a way to camouflage the insignificance of most of our activities.

Personally, I reject the notion of being perpetually busy. I consider myself the least industrious ambitious person I know. Like many writers, I often feel like a misfit who must earn the right to exist each day through writing. However, I believe that dedicating four or five hours to my craft is sufficient to justify my presence on this planet for another day. On ordinary, fulfilling days, I engage in morning writing, embark on a leisurely bike ride, run errands in the afternoon, and spend the evening with friends or engrossed in reading or a movie. To me, this rhythm represents a balanced and enjoyable daily routine. So, if you were to call me and propose ditching work to explore the new American Wing at the Met, people-watching in Central Park, or sipping chilled, minty cocktails all day long, I'd simply ask, “What time?”

In recent months, due to professional commitments, I've gradually become entangled in busyness. I've reached a point where, for the first time, I can confidently claim to be “too busy” to accommodate various requests. It's intriguing how this excuse bestows a sense of importance and being in demand. However, I must confess that I despise the actual state of busyness.

Each morning, my inbox overflows with unwelcome tasks and unforeseen predicaments that demand my attention. The situation grew increasingly unbearable, pushing me to escape to an undisclosed location, where I currently find myself writing these words.

Here, I am largely free from obligations. Television is absent, and accessing emails requires a trip to the local library. I can go for weeks without encountering familiar faces. In this solitude, I've rekindled my connection with the simple wonders of life, from buttercups to stink bugs, and even the mesmerizing stars in the night sky. I've delved into books once more, and for the first time in months, I'm making genuine progress with my writing.

Reflecting on life and finding words to capture its essence demands both immersion in the world and occasional detachment from it. It's challenging to articulate the intricacies of life without experiencing it, yet equally impossible to gain clarity on what it truly entails and how to express it effectively without the occasional retreat from the daily grind.

Idleness isn't merely a break, a luxury, or a fault; it's as vital for the mind as vitamin D is for the body. Without it, we experience a mental ailment as debilitating as rickets. The spaciousness and tranquility that idleness affords are prerequisites for stepping back from life, gaining a holistic perspective, establishing unforeseen connections, and awaiting the unexpected bursts of inspiration. Paradoxically, it's crucial for accomplishing any task. In his essay on sloth, Thomas Pynchon astutely noted, “Idle dreaming is often at the core of what we do.” Historical tales like Archimedes' “Eureka” moment in the bath, Newton's apple incident, and the creation of Jekyll & Hyde or the benzene ring are replete with instances of inspiration striking during idle moments and dreams. This prompts one to ponder whether slackers, daydreamers, and layabouts might be responsible for more of the world's brilliant ideas, innovations, and masterpieces than their diligent counterparts.

Balancing one's approach to life is crucial; adhering strictly to my way may lead to chaos, yet the relentless rush of the world isn't the answer either. I see myself as a disruptor, the mischievous student peeking through the classroom window, encouraging you to break free, just this once, and join the outside world. My choice to embrace idleness, while often seen as a privilege, was a conscious decision made years ago. I opted for time over wealth because I've always believed that the most valuable investment of my limited time on this planet is in nurturing relationships with those dear to me.

It's conceivable that, as I approach the end of my days, I might regret not toiling harder or expressing every thought that crossed my mind. However, my true regret will likely revolve around yearning for one more beer with Chris, an extended conversation with Megan, or a final hearty laugh with Boyd. Life's brevity reminds us that it's too precious to be constantly occupied.

Benjamin Anderson

Benjamin Anderson


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