June 14, 2013

The False Idol of Busyness

"Pensive Woman with Umbrella" Fernard Toussaint

Our modern society is a busy society.

Walk into a modern book store and you are bound to see more books on how to organize your life, your closet, your to-do list, your calendar, your every little thing than books on philosophy or high literature. In our schools and work places, the emphasis is on efficiency and quantity produced. People are constantly being asked to do more with less and are scrambling to catch up.

I am not immune from this lifestyle:
~ I have to do lists (yes, plural)
~ I have calendars and plans three, four months in advance.
~ I get the thrill from crossing another thing off my to-do list (to the point of adding silly things, just to check them off)
~ I indulge in the faux matyrish rush of exclaiming "Oh, I'm just so busy," to questions of my day and seeing the sympathetic nods.

This isn't healthy.

I shouldn't need to say that, but it's true. Our lives should not be a constant theater of stress. We shouldn't delight in our busyness.

So why do we?

We have lost our external sense of identity.

To use myself as a case example:in the past five years, I have moved three times with each move taking me further first from family and then from friends.  The town I live in will be changed in three years time again- or sooner. The acquaintances and connections I've made will be maintained by facebook and email. Finally, I have neither the money nor time to become a regular anywhere or join a set group of people. (Alas the lonely life of the grad student...)

Now, how do I identify myself? After so many moves, I can no longer say that I am from any one state or town. Family identity loses meaning when you rarely seem them and no one knows your relatives. Being an American loses its force when everyone around you is in a similar state. Nor can I turn to religion- the third aspect of the triumvirate of ancient identity- because I am an agnostic at best.

So, how do I identify myself? Well, I have a blog. I love to read. I am a student. I write old fashioned letters. I am learning to sew.  In short, my identity has become the things I use to fill my time. I am a writer, a reader, a student, a penpal, a seamstress. As many different identities as I could want to fill my interests and time.

The more tasks I complete- the more dresses I sew, the more blog posts I write, the more letters I send or receive- the more embedded this identity becomes, the more claim I have to the title. The problem with finding out identities in our activities is that they are terribly fragile. There are, for instance, bloggers out there who sew more than I do ( Madame Mari Mortem ) who sews much more and much, much better than I do. Compared to her, my claim to being a seamstress is called into question. The same comparison can be made with any of the labels with which we identify ourselves.

To compensate, we've begun to over-stuff our schedules to reassure ourselves that we a) are someone and b) have a valid claim to that identification. An afternoon spent watching television or slacking off is considered a waste and I, at least, end up feeling terribly guilty because of it.

I repeat again. This isn't a healthy way to live. We need time to rest, to relax, to waste time. Most great inventions, ideas and inspiration come from an empty afternoon spent tinkering with something that we love rather than crossing off to do lists and drifting through our tightly scheduled day.

We need to let go of a fear of being a no-body. (This is a difficult task that I have only just realized must be done, but have no idea how to go about doing it). We need to empty our schedules and not immediately think of what we can do to fill it up- even with pleasurable activities. Boredom is not the worst think to happen. We are not immoral for not being constantly busy. We are not lazy, we are not unindustrious, we are still going to be happy and get along in life.

How busy are your lives?


  1. My husband and I try to take time every day, when he gets home from work, to sit out on the porch with a beverage, watch the passing trains and just talk to each other . Or not talk. Just sit and be in the moment. when we first started to do this, I had to restrain myself from hauling my laptop out there, or grabbing an unfinished sewing project or painting. Sometimes sitting still is a chore. Relaxing stresses me out :)

  2. Haha. I know. Especially when you have a to-do list or a list of things that need to be done calling out to you. Plus as soon as I sit down, I begin brainstorming so many more things that I want to do- both chores and creative. I generally allow myself a pencil and a sheet of paper to jot down ideas and thoughts because otherwise I would go mad. But eventually they die down and I am left quiet.

    It's very good that you have this time though! It probably makes watching the seasons change outside your window so much lovelier. Plus, so few people use their porches like that anymore.

  3. I have recently been fighting my own battle against the Glorification of Busy. I sit, I stare off, I let my mind wander. It bothers my husband when I just sit, so I'll pick up my knitting. (I just purl over and over, so I don't have to look at it.) I am a fan of doing nothing, or at minimum, walking nowhere for no reason for an indeterminate amount of time. I actively fight the busy and any social judgement I get because of it.

    1. That sounds like the healthiest embrace of the still and contemplative I've seen in someone of my generation yet. I'm sorry to hear that your stillness bothers your husband., but it is good that you can remain strong in the face of that social pressure.