Tim Kreider’s recent New York Times op-ed, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” has been streaking around the social mediasphere. Kreider positions himself as a modern-day Thoreau, writing from an “Undisclosed Location” without TV or internet, but with buttercups, stink bugs and stars. He decries our “present hysteria” of busyness and invites us to join him in stepping off the merry-go-round.
Most of us, he says, are addicted to busyness because we “dread what [we] might have to face in its absence”:
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.
When I suffered a disappointment as a kid, Mamma would sometimes suggest that I think about what difference it would make in a year. Or five years. Or ten.
I found the exercise depressing, though, because it worked just as well the other way round. None of my triumphs were going to make much difference in ten years, either. Certainly not in 100. And it’s way easier to turn up the music, hit the gas, jot another appointment in the day planner, than it is to think too long about that.
But solitude, quiet, and rest are still things we desperately need:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
Kreider’s essay has gotten a lot of response around the web:
- TV producer and triathlete Katy Widrick says that, although she doesn’t have a lot of down time, and checks her email every hour on the hour during the night, (woman, what are you thinking?!) she doesn’t know that she’d describe herself as busy exactly.
- App developer Gina Trapani totally (and hilariously) misses the point with an article touting prioritizing as the key to “working smarter” and thus avoiding the busy trap.
- Slate’s J. Bryan Lowder points out the essay’s elitism: How many of us can, as Kreider says he does, work four hours a day, take a day off on the spur of the moment to drink “chilled pink, minty cocktails,” or escape to an undisclosed location to concentrate on our writing?
But everybody seems fine with Kreider’s basic premise:
My old colleague Ted Rall recently wrote a column proposing that we divorce income from work and give each citizen a guaranteed paycheck, which sounds like the kind of lunatic notion that’ll be considered a basic human right in about a century, like abolition, universal suffrage and eight-hour workdays. The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.
And he quotes Arthur C. Clarke: “The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.”
Wow. I’m not even gonna go into the economics here.
Okay, so maybe just a little. Where is that money gonna come from, exactly, if we’re all spending our days drinking pink minty cocktails?
But. Aside from that.
Did the Puritans turn work into a virtue? Is God punishing us?
And would you work if you didn’t have to?
I spent a lot of time thinking about that once. My parents died when I was young, leaving me a tidy little sum. Well, actually more of a messy, largish sum. I considered–we had two young daughters at the time–hiring a nanny to do all the messy and unfun parts of child-rearing. My husband fantasized about paying cash for a Rolls Royce, just to see if the salesman would look surprised. We thought about moving to the French Riviera or someplace and just living our lives in the sun.
Ultimately, we decided that there were a lot of hungry, hurting people out there who needed the money way more than we did. But we weren’t just being altruistic. The other side of it was purely selfish.
We decided that work was good for us.
That we were made for bigger and better things than playing our lives away.
And I can honestly say that’s probably the one decision in my vacillating life that I’ve never regretted, even for a moment.
In a broken world, lots of our work is mindless and frustrating and has to be done over again the next day. But the problem is the futility, not work itself. Productive work well done is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Yes, deprived of idleness–quietness, solitude, rest–we suffer mental deformities, and physical afflictions as well.
But deprived of work, we never grow up.
And I hope that never, ever comes to be considered a basic human right.