Lies we tell ourselves
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.
Last week, a New York Times opinion piece, The ‘Busy’ Trap, made the rounds on the Internet. And nearly everyone who shared it (myself included) did so with a sort of perverse pride. “Hah, this is so me. Busted!”
Which is ironic, given the article’s thesis. We’re not busy out of necessity. We’re busy out of hubris – it makes us feel more important when our every waking hour is spent on work or an extracurricular. And while I’d argue that some of the busiest people I know are genuinely busy doing genuinely valuable things, overall the author presents a solid (and damning) case. When prompted, we enjoy lamenting about the insane pace of our lives. In fact, these days we don’t even have to wait to be asked. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, etc, we can now volunteer commentary on how busy and important we are at any hour to an ever-available audience. And often, that audience responds. Instant validation.
I suck at carving out free time for myself. And yes, this admission is half humility, half brag (#humblebrag). But I tell myself that it’s okay, because my current busyness is a conscious, measured choice. Just like I’ll later choose to counterbalance these sleep-deprived years by embracing the opposite extreme. Take a year or two to live on some remote, exotic beach. Write a novel. Meditate and do yoga daily.
But here’s the problem with that plan, as charming as it sounds (aside from the obvious economic challenges). Relaxation isn’t merely the absence of busyness. It’s an art, a skill. It takes as much practice to learn to calibrate to an agenda-less existence as it does to a 16-hour workday.
When I studied abroad in Seville, Spain my junior year of college, I was initially enamored with the slow pace of life and a relative absence of responsibility. Classes were a joke and warranted attendance about a third of the time. My host family only hosted for financial benefit, and didn’t care to see me outside of meals. Every day was the same: some combination of napping, attending a class (or not), tanning alongside the Gaudalquivir river, binging on pirated episodes of 24 (Spanish TV is flat-out awful, sorry), eating too much fried food and drinking too much wine, and hitting the discotecas until sunrise.
But after the novelty of it all subsided, I began to go a little insane. My days had no purpose, no structure. I’d invent random tasks for myself, like reading The Economist – one of the few English-language magazines I could get my hands on – cover to cover each week. I planned and took trips to stay occupied, and probably (okay, definitely) drank way too much. My surroundings were exotic, my days were wide open, and I couldn’t wait to return to my overscheduled, goal-oriented life.
If I had a difficult time making the transition in college, I can only imagine how hard it would be for me now. Back then, I had no iPhone, no Twitter. I’d check my email maybe once or twice a day. Today, I am incessantly, obsessively connected. And by extension, busy. And oh-so important.
I think most of us who’ve fallen into the “busy trap” like to kid ourselves that we could crawl out of it at will. We go on vacation and read in the sun and pat ourselves on the back for only checking email once a day. Busyness is a choice, and we can choose to disconnect. It’s that simple.
Except that it’s not. We measure our self worth by what we do each day, and in what volume. Vacations don’t change that equation, they merely hit pause on the calculation.
I have to imagine that this is why some women who decide to stay at home and raise children have a difficult time with that transition. Or why people who lose their jobs fall into such deep depression. Obvious challenges associated with both those scenarios aside, the entire way we value ourselves (and assume others value us) crumbles.
Is our generation going to be capable of appreciating retirement, or will we be too far gone?
Let’s say I do find a way to make my beachy retreat from the world work. Would I even know how to feel good about myself in those circumstances? Could I survive without structure, ubiquitous connection and constant feedback? Or would I falsely build those into my new life?
It might be worth the agony of an exotic ex-pat adventure to find out. Someday.