Excerpted from the New York Times opinion piece by Tim Kreider, 6.30.12)
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy!” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”
Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s make sure to sign up for community service because it looks good on their college applications. Even children are busy now, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups.
The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. We are busy because of our own ambition or drive or anxiety, because we’re addicted to busyness and dread what we might have to face in its absence. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.
Busyness may serve as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; our life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if we are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up our fear that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
[I would like to suggest that] 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 that, 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.
* * *
Tim Kreider is the author of We Learn Nothing, a collection of essays and cartoons. His cartoon, “The Pain — When Will It End?” has been collected in three books by Fantagraphics.
See also: Another Reason Why Play is Important for Children (Gopnik)