On the “Busy Trap”

Say, for a moment, that you can read everyone’s minds. Before we get too excited, let’s disentangle ourselves from the myriad ways this skill might come in handy and instead, zero in on one. We may be the most educated, interconnected band of humans to walk the planet yet, but we are not doing right by each other. To prove it, take your newfound telepathic talent, set off on a stroll down the street, and ask your neighbors what’s most important to them.

Chances are, the word “family” is going to roll off several tongues.

Mind-blowing, isn’t it? Not really. We organize our lives around the grand societal pillar that family has become in so many cultures, so it isn’t news that Mom and Grandpa are important. Rather, it’s how we then go on to treat these relatives after professing them as such.

We are the generation of busy. We are on the go nonstop, tossing sleep and peace of mind out the window without taking stock of what their loss means. “Busy” has become, as Tim Kreider puts it in The “Busy” Trap, the “default response” for your average greeting. But, while busyness may masquerade as a surface issue, or simply a convention of the time, destined to slowly fade from use, like drive-in movie theatres or bell-bottomed jeans, its roots are deep.

After all, what does “busy” mean? Merriam-Webster dictionary calls it “involved in often constant activity,” which we can boil down to “out of time.” Decrypting that code phrase, you understand it to mean that there was time, it just wasn’t spent on you.

There’s where our interpretation of busyness is distorted. It’s this “you,” or really we, that lies at the heart of the busyness crisis, because just as often as someone is too wrapped up in work to deal with us, we too fail to find time for them. No one bullies us into taking the lead in that group project. Earth will not fizzle into nothingness if we don’t sign up for that 5k, or don’t make dinner from scratch. Like Kreider points out, “it’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed,” which begs us to wonder why, if we can take on more work, can’t we also rid ourselves of it?

We have spent too much time toying with this “why” and postulating “hows”. It’s what I’m doing right now, and maybe you are too, and certainly what Kreider’s article has taken a stab at. What we aren’t talking about is what our “busy” means for our loved ones. Look outside yourself, busy person.

The truth is that as much as being swamped is a “copout” for friends, Mekita Rivas notes that it has become equally commonplace “when doling out reasons for […] neglecting loved ones.” The National Council on Aging has placed family members at fault in 60% of elderly neglect incidents, which is not to say that each of us is the agent of our elders’ distress, but it should be a jab into our subconsciouses. As much as we find the busy excuse to be “a direct slap in the face,” it is equally so to those we release it upon – a category which we have lumped our relatives into. Most of us would affirm the statement “family is important.” Most of us, however, would not be able to avow that we had never postponed a dinner with Dad, rushed through a phone call to finish AP Chemistry homework, or canceled a casual family get-together because work came up.

“Life is too short to be busy” may be Tim Kreider’s way of topping an apparently unsolvable social dilemma with rainbow sprinkles and leaving it be. Or, it might have merit – just not the kind you’re expecting. It’s one thing when the life you’re talking about is your own; it’s something else when that ticking clock belongs to another person. I’ll never be too busy to regret what I missed when I’m no longer here to miss it. So this weekend, I’m going to brunch with my grandmother. Everything else will wait.

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