In Praise of Busy

Are you crazy busy? Not because you have to be, but by choice? I read Tim Kreider’s “Opinionator” piece, “The Busy Trap,” online in the Times ( see above link) right after I did the morning prayers — my daily wake-up call — and right before I launched into my other usual early-morning activity, playing on Facebook.

It stopped me in my tracks.

Kreider’s piece talks about the maniacal need many people have to overschedule their lives, and often their children’s lives, as a conscious effort to avoid idleness, which is synonymous with sloth. If we’re busy, even it’s with work we don’t really need or activities that don’t enrich our lives, we’re able to maintain the delusion that that our lives have more value than they actually do. “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,” Kreider writes.

A few thoughts here.

It’s important to note that the population he’s addressing has become increasingly small thanks to the lousy economy. I don’t know what kind of circles the author travels in, but most people I know work as much as they can because it’s a better alternative than, say, starving to death or living in your car. A week home with the flu is the closest many people get to idleness.

When I spent two days in the hospital after the birth of each of my kids, I joked that this was my idea of a vacation. Certainly it was the longest I spent in front of a television during my entire adult life, except to watch “Thirtysomething” in my twenties and, later, to feed my addiction to “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City.” I was a busy person — busy not to avoid doing nothing, but busy because I genuinely liked to work. Still do, in fact. I enjoy the mental aerobics of work. I enjoy creating something from nothing. I like the discipline that work, in this case writing, gives my life. I’d feel like a complete sloth if I didn’t spend some time each day putting words on the screen in front of me.

When I’m not working or tending to responsibilities at home or chatting with friends, I tend to occupy my time with activities that give the brain a workout. I suppose Tim Kreider would still consider me busy, and this is correct, up to a point. I do the Times crossword (except on Saturday, when it’s impossible for any normal human). I run through books of logic puzzles. I read a lot. I go on Facebook or check out the media outlets on  Twitter. But here’s the thing. These “busy” activities usually have a multitasking component that encompasses a degree of slothfulness. I’ll generally be listening to music or have the TV on in the background. (My daughter Kate finds it amazing that I know just about every episode of “The Nanny” by heart without knowing what a single character looks like, except of course Fran Drescher.)

Somewhere in the middle of reading or doing some non-work-related mental activity, I’ll invariably start daydreaming. Sometimes I’ll fall asleep for a few minutes. But then I’ll return to whatever activity or activities I was doing before, including the mind-wandering part. For me, this constitutes idleness, because the activities I choose to fill my day leave plenty of gaps for rumination. Some really good ideas have come to me while I’m doing the crossword. So contrary to what Tim Kreider contends, keeping busy and letting your mind roam free are not always mutually exclusive. You can be busy, according to my definition, and idle, according to his, at the same time.

I cannot imagine sitting around and doing nothing — I mean, really nothing. I’d go nuts and, frankly, I don’t think one’s anxiety level benefits if the brain is kept uncaged too long. Depending on the particular monsters you have in your closet, too much idleness can be a scary thing. Keeping busy is therapeutic, a way of maintaining one’s sanity and keeping at bay the stuff that’s messy or painful to confront. Denial, you say? Well, maybe. Okay, yes. But there are times in all our lives when reality is acceptable only in bite-sized pieces.

For some, like the author of the “Opinionator” piece, idle time is a friend and a joy that too many cast aside as worthless. For others, it’s more complicated.  We all need our escapes.

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