(Title is a quote from an Atlantic interview with Brigid Schulte about “the overwhelm.”)
Many people who complain about being busy are hoping everyone hears this subtext: “I’m important, needed, and valuable.” We live in a society that lauds constant activity. To be idle is to be lazy. It might even be a sin.
The problem is, there are no limits to busyness. How do we know when we are doing enough? Over the last fifty years we have increased our activity levels. We work more hours than people everywhere except Japan and South Korea. Our kids must be constantly engaged. We have checklists of everything we “have” to do.
We know something is wrong with this, but we don’t know what it is. I’ll tell you what it is.
In our culture, we have no way to talk about not being productive that doesn’t have a negative connotation.
Think about it. How would you describe a long Sunday afternoon in which you did nothing? Would you say, “I was idle all Sunday”? That would sound like you shirked your responsibilities.
Would you say, “I did nothing all Sunday”? If you did, would you say it self-deprecatingly? As in, “I know I should have got stuff done, but…” Or would you say it proudly, as in “Even though I had all this stuff to do, I said screw all that, I’m going to laze around.”
Doing nothing. Lazing around. Being idle. Wasting time. Being unproductive.
What about, “I relaxed all Sunday”? (But wait, that’s doing something! You spent that time worthily! You actively relaxed! Relaxing is allowed as long as it is preceded and followed by being productive!)
Do you feel guilty about those times when you “get nothing done”? That’s what’s wrong with our culture of busy.
We need long periods of deep idleness, in which we do nothing except exist. It gives our brains time to process past activity, which takes longer than we imagine, and can serve to put us back in touch with our centers (or God, or the universal energy, or…). I believe in being idle. Still, I get nervous if I have not done anything for awhile (anything productive, that is). If I have not checked off some items on my ever-present mental list of things I “have” to do to be a worthy (read: productive) person.
I try to find ways to describe my inactivity in a positive way, those hours in which things go undone because I need down time. I want to value my idle hours as much as the productive ones, and as something more than just a dichotomy of productivity.
The best way I’ve come across so far is what an old teacher of mine said when I asked her what she was doing in her retirement.
She said, “I just be.”
To be worthy is to be.
Photograph taken on Eleuthera.