Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ants and the hamster wheel

"I am soo busy"..."incredibly swamped this week"... "up against a deadline but I'll get back to you you.." How many times do you hear similar responses when simply greeting a friend, or inquiring about her general well-being? It seems to be a default response these days, even surpassing the almost autonomic reply "fine."

Busy-ness is so pervasive, it seems to have become the norm. But it is not particularly new. 160 years ago Henry David Thoreau observed "It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" 

Good question, HD! Many of us still lead lives that resemble those of insects. Why? Are we really, truly, as Merriam Webster defines "busy," engaged in action: occupied? I suppose to some extent we are: we are always breathing, so are engaging in that action. But on a less cellular level, many of us keep ourselves busy, otherwise occupied, as an act of volition. This way we can shield ourselves from the tough job of examining our actions--and by extension, our life choices--too closely. We are good parents if we are busy shuttling our kids from piano to soccer. We are good citizens if we go to lots of meetings for our civic association and faith community. And we are good employees if we don't have time take a lunch hour, much less sit and actually think about how best to solve the latest work-related challenge! No wonder we have no time to do the housework, cook anything, or weed the garden.

The second part of Webster's definition of "busy" is being in use. I wonder what use we are being as we run along our self-constructed hamster wheels, making a lot of noise and engaging in action. What are we accomplishing? Are we actually getting anywhere? Essayist Tim Kreider named this state  The Busy Trap in a piece he wrote for the New York Times Opinionator blog a few months ago. I have remembered that piece, and have tried not to fall into that trap myself since I read it. But it has been a challenge! I have concluded that refusing to be "busy" is nothing less than a counter-cultural act. It is a challenge you feel viscerally, like trying to swim upstream or walk up a down escalator.

Thoreau tells us busy-ness was the norm in the 1850s, but since his time our level has increased geometrically. Just think: in the past 16 years we have gone from handheld PDAs for a few who apologized "I need this for work," to smartphones that have become lifelines for everyone over the age of 14. These devices are meant to help us organize our small tasks so we don't fall into The Busy Trap. But if we fail to master our tools, and let them master us, we are just creating different ways to engage in busy behavior. More smokescreens to hide what really matters, more reasons to escape to a superficial world where the squeaky wheel gets the oil and the underlying reasons for the squeak go unexamined until the whole thing falls apart.  

As Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth living." So take time to look at your life. Look for purpose. Check to see that the road you are following actually leads somewhere. And if your wheel is squeaky, get off, oil it--and ask yourself "Do I really need to jump back on?"

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