What you’ve been told about busyness is wrong
Kreider writes of busyness as ‘as a kind of existential reassurance; a hedge against emptiness’.
In my first draft of this piece, I wrote something quite earnest about how I have started to book idle time into my diary. I wrote it as if doing so is not a completely preposterous thing. It’s not, perhaps, if you measure preposterousness by the way that other people live. I know that it’s not an uncommon practice. But on reflection (and second draft), I realised that it is ridiculous indeed; a sign that I’m adhering to the kind of preposterous lifestyle that Tim Kreider skewered in his recent New York Times essay, ‘The Busy Trap’. Kreider clearly struck a chord: I saw the piece come up over and over again last week in my Twitter feed last week, linked to, with remarks of approval and lonthging, by people so busy that 140 characters feels like a legitimate, rather than preposterous, communication strategy.
Why have I become a preposterous kind of person who, like so many others, schedules idle time? If the busyness that Kreider writes of is, as he claims, a 21-century phenomenon, then I am an early adopter. I learned to boast of busyness as a teenager; I remember competing with classmates during a break in a chemistry lesson in something like an exhaustion-off, each of us describing in slightly shrill tones how little sleep we’d gotten the night before, thanks to our hectic schedules of homework and sports teams and school newspaper editing. I remember feeling a little resentful towards my parents and their insistence that I be in bed by 11 o’clock, despite it meaning that I might spend as many as six or seven hours not doing anything important.
Kreider writes of busyness as ‘as a kind of existential reassurance; a hedge against emptiness’. And no doubt that is a large part of what keeps me maintaining the kind of lifestyle that motivates me to sometimes write ‘DO NOTHING’ in my diary in larger, more important letters than I use to note writing deadlines and appointments with friends. For while I am a fan of my own company I am, perhaps, less of a fan of the feeling I get when someone asks me what I did at the weekend and I can’t make an interesting report.
My aversion to idleness has swelled since the end of an unsatisfying relationship seven months ago, because doing nothing in company somehow feels more worthwhile than doing something alone. I find myself feeling strangely jealous of people in relationship who have, I perceive, the leisure to do absolutely nothing because they have someone to be idle with. Having spent much of my adult life uncoupled, for the most part I haven’t found it difficult to slide back into old habits of flying solo: going to a wedding on my own is no problem; neither is dining out or, for that matter, hanging out with other people and their partners; I maybe take some small pride in how adept I am at being the uneven wheel. But I do have to fight the suspicion that staying in on a Saturday night with a boyfriend to watch grim television and eat a takeaway pizza is cosy and romantic; doing the same thing without a companion seems slightly pathetic. Which is also, let’s be clear, preposterous.
We see busyness as such an important state that we tell each other, and ourselves, to pursue it when things aren’t going well. ‘Keep busy,’ we say, to each other and to ourselves, by way of something like comfort in the face of the kind of challenges in life that have no solution but time and endurance. The justification, of course, is that busyness provides distraction; that it prevents us to think about things that don’t bear consideration. But maybe, sometimes idleness is the kinder option: ‘stay idle’ sounds insulting (can you imagine? Insinuating that someone is not just miserable, but lazy?), but responding to stress by seeking opportunities for stillness and calm, opting for non-productivity over action, might just be an equally, if not more, effective route to coping with stress.
And thus, as preposterous as my system for scheduling idleness is, I’m glad that I’ve learned to do it: to regard time spent doing nothing as valuable (if not more so) than all the time I spend frantically doing something. I can only hope that as this year progresses I might be able to progress to Advanced Idleness: spontaneous idleness; freestyle idleness. Idleness as default with activity booked in to interrupt it, as opposed to the other way around? I’m going to keep working towards it. Or, rather, not working towards it.