Getting Un-Busy

When someone asks us how we are, there are so many responses we never use: ecstatic, grieving, lonely, joyful, sad, afraid, pensive, loved, happy. The acceptable emotional range runs from pretty good to fine on the positive side and can’t complain to hanging in there on the negative side. But if we want to make it clear that we are suffering nobly we say, “Busy!”

I hear busy more often than any other answer at work. It is accurate. Most people wear more hats than comfortably fit on their heads and have been tasked with more than can be accomplished in forty hours a week, or fifty or sixty.

I sometimes feel myself competing to be busier than others because it equates to working harder and being a more responsible, valuable employee and therefore a clearly superior human being. Because that’s the point of life, really—to be better than everyone else. That will lead to fulfillment and a sense of profound peace every time.

A few months ago, I decided to stop focusing on the busy-ness, stop comparing overwhelmingly behind horror stories, and find some other way to describe my state of being. I was doing pretty well. Until last week.

Then I got really busy. Emails went unanswered. Projects fell off my plate, pushed off by more urgent projects. When people asked me how I was, I didn’t say overwhelmed or distracted or struggling to enjoy my accomplishments because the next task is always looming. I said busy. I’ve been saying it ever since.

The week before last, a hummingbird came and hovered in front of my window and commenced turning flips in the air. This is the kind of thing I don’t notice when I’m caught up in having too much to do. This is the kind of thing I think is most important to notice in this life.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here is another one from William Stafford that suggests a possible alternative to a constant focus on our ever-growing to-do list.

You Reading This, Be Ready
by William Stafford

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

Not Going to Extremes

In my hometown, keeping up with the Joneses didn’t have anything to do with the brand of your car or the size of your house. It meant running an ultramarathon the day after your soccer tournament. At 10,000 feet elevation. In the snow. Backwards.

Being surrounded by people rock climbing, skiing avalanche chutes, and boating class five rapids made it easy to believe that these activities made you feel the most alive. I often thought I should be doing something more death defying, dangerous, or at least generally uncomfortable. If you’d asked me why, I would have said those things counted more, though I might not have been able to tell you what we were counting.

Now, I work with faculty members who are equally extreme but in a different way. The number of projects their jobs demand they juggle both impresses me and makes me dizzy. A hypothetical one-person sample: teaching three classes, running their own research—which includes supervising students—organizing a conference, preparing reams of documents for their professional review, being a mom/dad, not to mention those unexpected items life throws at you.

I used to feel like a slacker compared to people who run their lives this way. Recently, a new feeling has crept in—sanity. I worry a little bit (because after all, what’s life without at least some fretting?) that no longer expecting myself to keep up that pace means I’m getting old and complacent, but the amount of activity we expect ourselves to do in this culture is not reasonable or healthy.

A few people might thrive on constant motion. But no one I know rattles off impossibly long to-do lists with joy, and my colleagues so often look slightly harried.

As usual, someone else has already said it better than I can. This time it’s the Sufi poet Hafiz. He says,

When all your desires are distilled
You will cast just two votes:
To love more,
And be happy.
(translation by Daniel Ladinsky)

I don’t think a longer list will help us with either one of those.