Posted by kari.petroschmidt
Such is the phrase whispered by the Bokonists in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, “whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.” I quite like this articulation.
Yet of course, most of us do not conceptualise the word ‘busy’ as connoting mystery, complexity, the convoluted rhythms of our lives. ‘Busy’ is… chaotic, frantic, harried, full. It’s pejorative. And it’s typically our 21st century response to the question, ‘how are you?’
Now, this is a bizarre question in itself. In countries such as Estonia it doesn’t even exist. Why? Because we don’t care. The question is a formality, a social ritual, or meaningless habit. It’s saying something for the sake of filling up space (as people in the English speaking world tend to do). How many times, after all, have you walked past someone and asked them this question, without bothering to stop and hear the answer? So I have a problem with the question in the first instance, although let’s be honest I probably won’t stop using it any time soon. These social rituals exist for a reason, even if they are just a token recognition of somebody elses life experience.
But the response. You’re ‘busy’. EVERYONE is busy. It’s subtle and small, but it’s whiny. Who cares if you’re busy? It doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Granted, any response you could give to the question ‘how are you?’ probably doesn’t mean much to anyone, at least in the context of social niceties. But telling someone you’re busy is at least a sort of mild complaint or moan. You’re busy, suggesting that’s a problem. Aren’t we active agents in our own lives? DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT (again, I’m guilty of this myself, so grant me a bit of self-flagellation here – mostly I just get annoyed at hearing myself say it).
Nobody wants to be constantly busy and stressed, as addictive as it can be. We want to have direction, to feel that we’re achieving something bigger than ourselves, rather than flailing in the minutae of our own busyness. And we want to be able to idle. Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff asserts that we have less leisure time today than we did in feudal society. I’m not saying this isn’t, at least in part, the fault of a societal ethic that encourages us to work and consume constantly. However, the problem also lies in the fact that we don’t know how to work efficiently – we promote quantity (hours of work) over quality (focus of work).
According to this excellent post on Study Hacks, the ‘elite’ of violin players, for instance, aren’t perennially ‘busy’. However, when they are practising they actively push themselves. They focus, they are present (meaning they’re not constantly distracted by social networking mediums, one of the primary problems regarding productivity and creativity today). And when they’re not working, their work doesn’t consume their leisure time. With superior results.
True, this is an age of distraction – Facebook, twitter, email, cellphones. How many times while reading this blog post have you thought about checking either one of these mediums? We can flail around forever, feeling lost in the sheer amount of stuff we have to do, stressed out due to our lack of direction. Yet efficiency and focus in work isn’t impossible. It’s something we can cultivate. And many would argue, if you’re finding yourself constantly answering ‘busy’ in response to the question, ‘how are you?’, than you’re not doing it right.
In the words of Kurt Vonnegut…