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.

D’var Torah: Chukat…..Disappointment and Moving On

As most of you know, the writer Nora Ephron passed away this week. In addition to being a huge fan of her essays, I loved the movies she wrote and directed. They make me laugh and they focus on themes that most people can relate to. How we deal with love when disappointment follows, for instance. Or how we put one foot in front of the other when all hope appears to be lost.

In “Sleepless in Seattle,” a man with a young son is torn apart by the death of his wife. Somehow, in spite of the odds, he manages to find new love three thousand miles away. Death is followed by healing. My all-time favorite Nora Ephron movie, the one I can watch again and again, is “When Harry Met Sally.” Throughout the movie, couples who have been married for a hundred years talk about how they met — usually the wife does all the talking – while a couple that’s obviously in love, played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, has a hard time connecting in the way they should. At the end of the movie they do connect, of course, but there’s a fair amount of unhappiness and heartache for both parties in between.

I thought of Nora Ephron when I read this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. Three terrible events take place, not coincidentally, on the last three stops of the Israelites’ journey. First we have the death of Miriam. Her passing receives greater mention in the Torah than most women receive. We know her time of death, on the first new moon, and her place of burial, in Kadesh. We know she is a woman of great importance, and that she’s worthy of the ritual of purification that’s explained just prior to her death. Miriam’s death is followed by the death of her brother, Aaron. It’s not clear why the so-called crime he committed is severe enough to warrant God sending him up to Mount Hor to die, but that’s the punishment he receives nonetheless.

Then finally, we learn that Miriam and Aaron’s brother, Moses, will never get to enter the Promised Land. His leadership will end in profound personal disappointment. Another leader will get to take the Israelites on the final step of their journey toward freedom.

Despite all the heartbreak, it becomes clear that the Torah portion is ultimately a hopeful one. After a long period of bad luck, the Israelites enjoy victories on the battlefield and their fortune begins to change. The despair they felt about spending the rest of their lives in the desert, and the whining and complaining that caused Moses to lose his patience with them and led to his own punishment from God – this eventually turns into songs of gratitude and victory. Moses and Aaron have paid a very steep price, but the Israelites just keep marching on toward the Promised Land.

So here, too, we witness death followed by healing. We see how terrible disappointment can be followed by hope and possibility. In our own lives, we can all point to occasions where those same themes have held true.

After a loved one dies, we enter a period of mourning. We know how long the official mourning period lasts, but in reality we mourn for much longer than that. Slowly, however, we open our eyes and begin to take baby steps to look beyond our grief. At the beginning of the process we may view the world through the eyes of our lost loved one. We imagine how he or she would react to a situation. We hold conversations with our loved one, often out loud. Then we take a deep breath and we start to see the world anew through our loved one’s eyes and our own eyes. We start to live again, with the memory of our loved one stowed away safely in our heart. The healing process is underway. What we thought was impossible has become possible.

Near the end of any journey we reflect on how that journey went for us. In the case of a literal journey, we tend to reflect not just on the places we saw on vacation but the places we perhaps didn’t have time to see. This is true for our larger journeys, too, the metaphorical ones. For most of us, anyway, we don’t always get what we want. We end up in a different career than we imagined, or we end up out of work at one time or another. Our children don’t turn out exactly as we planned. We get sick. We learn quickly that marriage is a lot harder than it looks on television, or even in Nora Ephron’s movies.

Our lives take unexpected turns, and what we choose to do about it and how we deal with it is up to us. When God told Moses he would never fulfill his mission of bringing the Israelites to freedom, what did he do? Did he despair? Well, he probably did. Who wouldn’t? But did he give up, out of anger or despair? No, he didn’t. He put one foot in front of the other and went forward. The victories in battle must’ve been bittersweet for Moses at that point. But they were still victories. Moses continued on – moving ahead — in spite of a crushing disappointment. He redefined what he hoped to achieve and decided that, maybe, it’s the journey, not the destination, that makes you who you are. He saw that his destiny was to become a teacher as well as a leader – someone who could pass the mantle of leadership to the next generation. For Moses, the journey, while it didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped, remained both meaningful and worthwhile.

There is much for all of us to learn from our own journeys, and it’s the unexpected twists, turns and detours that tend to drive the lessons home. That’s why we’re all drawn to stories of people who manage to overcome overwhelming obstacles – the homeless girl who ends up at Harvard. The young woman with the flesh-eating bacteria, whose incredible will has kept her alive.

This week I said goodbye to a friend, a wonderful and devoted friend, who in a brief time went from being a successful and well-respected elected official to one who has been publicly disgraced and vilified. What the headlines didn’t say is that he is a man of uncommon decency and compassion, and a man whose advice typically is right on the money. Certainly his own journey has been derailed, and in a major way. The night before he left, we sat in his car and talked. I found it hard to say goodbye, but he looked ahead with complete and utter determination. “I’m going to walk in there,” he said, “and, God willing, one day I’m going to walk out.”

 Let us all take stock, then, of our own journey. Instead of tormenting ourselves with doubts and regrets, let us all appreciate the journey no matter what the destination might be. Finally, let us all have the courage and fortitude to withstand the unexpected and difficult detours that life presents us with.

 I’ll end with a quote from Nora Ephron. “Above all,” she said, “be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.” Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.