July 2, 2012

How Busy Are You?

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What is the issue?

How busy are you?

In this recent op/ed from The New York Times called “The Busy Trap,” writer Tim Kreider argues that you aren’t busy at all, really. People are making themselves “busy” with self-created and self-important nonsense obligations.

Sure, Kreider’s thesis applies to a select group. As I read it I thought, “What about the nurse who works 13 hour days and then comes home to three kids?” or “What about the disabled man who needs to see a zillion doctors every week?” And yes, those people are legitimately busy — even as Kreider points out — not busy, but tired. There is a difference. The people who complain about being “crazy busy” are rarely those working long hours or suffering, but rather what Kreider is talking about is self-imposed “busyness,” obligations taken on voluntarily out of some mix of motivation and anxiety. It’s an addiction to being busy. If you’re not busy, what are you? Thinking about the futility of it all and the inevitability of death? Are you…actually dead?

As my friend Chris puts it when I start bugging out, “What’s the crisis?” Often, I can’t answer that question. There is no crisis. And yet, I always act like my butt is literally on fire. I am a workaholic. My brain is never not going, “On to the next one, on to the next one.”

But the thing is, when I tell someone I’m busy, I really am busy. I make my own money as a freelancer and choose to live in New York City (although my tiny apartment is mad cheap by Manhattan standards). Because of this, I often have three or four gigs at once. This past week, I had multiple pieces to file and other odd jobs. I was busy.

“Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work,” Kreider writes.

This is the most true sentence in the piece. It’s essentially why I’m in therapy — to unpack the reasons I associate myself so heavily with work. My work is me. I am my work. If my work is good then I am good. If my work is bad then I am bad. It’s a tough nut to crack, even for a worthy therapist. It’s hard for me to realize that I am not my work. When people ask me how I’m doing, they don’t want to hear me ramble about an article I’m writing or a book I’m editing. They are asking how I am doing. And often, I don’t know. When I’m not working, I don’t feel entirely whole.

Perhaps we are all just making a mad struggle against our own mortality. Maybe we realize we don’t have all that much time on Earth and we want to spend it contributing or announcing ourselves or doing things or hell, maybe for that same reason, we’re so busy because we’re terrified of stopping and thinking about how we’re all headed for the grave. (So bleak, but that’s my brainwave.)

Kreider argues that all of this is self-imposed, or by the design of the situations in life we put ourselves in: “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.” He cites a friend who moved to the south of France and feels much more relaxed. And sure, I live in a fast-paced metropolis. But wherever you go, there you are. I have a feeling I’d be the same in Peoria or Nova Scotia. Moving won’t remove the urge to be “busy,” to feel like we matter, to feel like what we do is important. Some of us need that, even while we know without a doubt that some blog post we make on the Internet is just a candle in the wind.

“And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?,” Kreider writes.

I don’t do this. Am I missing out? Kreider and I seem to live similar lives in the sense that we’re both writers and we both have written for The New York Times, a prestigious publication you don’t get to write for without ambition and hard work. Maybe I’m stressing myself out all the time for no reason — a counterpoint to his relaxation. I operate a lot in “musts” — as though there are benchmarks I need to reach (all self-imposed). “I must get a piece in McSweeney’s.” “I must meet this editor at this party.” “I must write every single day.” Why? Or else what? I’m a bad person?

But a big part of me likes working and likes being busy. I like to think of it as filling my time with worthwhile projects and worthwhile people. I know, especially as a writer, it’s sometimes better to do some thinking without actually sitting down to think — by having experiences, by meeting new people, by spending time alone.

Inspiration, they say, comes when you loaf. And that’s true. But what about the next part? I don’t want to let go of that bigger step: the work involved in making that inspiration come to fruition. That comes from the drive to be busy.

Kreider ends his essay by saying, “Life is too short to be busy.” I’d say while that’s true, life is also too short to be idle. TC Mark

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