The dark side of busy

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Stephanie Dowrick

Stephanie Dowrick.

Stephanie Dowrick. Photo: Nic Walker


What a noisy word "busy" is. Sometimes just thinking about it can make me want to lie down in total silence. But while I'm all too intimate with its dark side, I must admit that "busy" – and all the urgency as well as activity it implies – has served me well.

 It has certainly allowed me to achieve more than I could have conjured up in my biggest dreams. It has supported me to raise two children, extended my working life indefinitely and made it possible to survive the fragilities of a freelance career that's far from well padded. There's no doubt, in fact, that "busy" (or "driven", maybe) has produced the long row of books that I am genuinely grateful to have written.

Perhaps less predictably, "busy" has accompanied me through devastating grief and allowed me eventually to learn a great deal from it. But there are costs.

"Busy" can also be an excuse and a pretty self-righteous one at that ("I'd love to, but ..."). It can be ruthlessly competitive and shallow in its values. Running yourself into the ground is apparently a badge of honour in some circles, worse when it's yet something else to compare, moan or boast about.

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To know its place, "busy" needs careful handling. Most of us need to ask not whether we are busy but what we're busy with. A rushed, distracted life is intrinsically unhealthy. It harms our bodies, relationships and our souls. No matter how driven we are, we need real time (not just good intentions) to breathe, think, reflect, appreciate and listen. We need time to rest and to be. This is lost if we're forever worshipping at the high altar of activity, or overvaluing our own agenda without noticing what others are doing – not least for us.

When I wrote Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love – a book about the great qualities such as courage, tolerance and generosity – I reflected on how subjective "busy" is. I tell the story of an exhausted mother walking around the supermarket with a baby on her front, a needy toddler holding her hand, throwing things into a shopping trolley while remembering a "time when she thought getting tired in the office meant getting tired, and when problems in the office meant problems". 

In the years of caring 24/7 for others, "busy" means something quite different from when you can largely order your time, "recover" from a structured working day, or sleep through the night. It is no surprise how much bitterness erupts between couples when one person has those privileges and the other doesn't. In fact, questions of fairness play into our perceptions of "busy" with real force. 

When I think about how busy I am and how much less busy I'd like to be, it's the torrent of demands that spill out of my computer and cover my desk that I'm recoiling from. When I am deeply engaged with something, or with people I treasure, or when I am taking my time and diving deep, "busy" hardly comes into it. Though demanding, these times are blissfully nourishing. It's too easy to be frantically busy yet be left feeling unstimulated, disconnected or empty.

However busy we are, and however sociable, I think it's essential we give at least some of our best hours to inner needs as well as outer demands. 

I remember a childhood poem that asks, "What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" Standing and staring may not be your way of replenishing (playing with loved ones, singing, eating slow meals and neglecting chores could be perfect), but the question is a great one. We betray the magnificence of life when we forget what matters most, or live only on the surface. 

"Busy" is real. But it's also – and always – relative. However besieged we feel, life is for living, not just "doing". It's for connecting, caring, loving. It's for treasuring this moment that won't come again. That's surely as desirable – and as precious – as it's ever been. 


I'M READING ...
Drusilla Modjeska's hugely satisfying, thoughtful and beautifully crafted memoir Second Half First

I'M LOVING ...
time with my granddaughter Madeleine, who at four is asking fabulously mind-expanding questions. 

I'M EATING ...
summer. That means stone fruits galore, mangoes, pineapples, melons, plus tomatoes straight from the vine. Yum!

I'M LISTENING ...
yet again to Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue reading his sublime Anam Cara: Wisdom from the Celtic World.