There’s an old joke that you know you’re in London because any conversation opener starts with a complaint about the horrors of London transit.  If we have a North American equivalent of a ritualized greeting, it has to be some sort of statement about how busy we are.

I’m certainly guilty of moaning about how busy I am.  And last Sunday night, after a weekend that included solo-parenting (which itself included taking my children out to dinner, the Art Gallery, the Science Centre and to swimming lessons, not to mention meals, dishes, etc.), six loads of laundry, baking muffins (yes, really), frequent email exchanges with a friend weighing out some big life decisions, powering through the Hunger Games to see if it would be OK for my seven-year-old to read (nope!), and, oh yes, working on an article, I felt fully entitled to describe myself as busy.  Even if I hadn’t, the half-bottle of red I’d consumed all on my lonesome Sunday night would have been testament to my deep need to slow down after all that busyness.

Of course, there was a lot of choice involved in that busyness.  Pint-sized nagging notwithstanding, I didn’t have to take my children to the Art Gallery and the Science Centre.  I could have made myself a coffee, cracked the Sunday New York Times and sent the children out to play.  I don’t even begin to fashion myself as a super-mom, so it’s not like I would have been letting down my self-image.

Or was there a choice?  Many say that we live in an era that celebrates busyness and equates it with success.  We’re measured by how busy we are and by how much we get done.  Sometimes, this is literal, as in the case with performance evaluations at work.  Sometimes it’s more symbolic, like receiving admiring social kudos for seamlessly managing multiple spheres of life, such as family, career, marriage, fitness etc.  By this logic, I’m a worthier person for having had such a busy weekend (although maybe not if you count nocturnal descent into the Barbera), and, given our hunger to see ourselves as worthy, maybe I didn’t really have so much choice after all.  We have to play along with our times.

Except what if this busy ethic, as it’s been called, isn’t something unique to our times, but more a prevailing human trope?  What if the feeling that there’s always something to attend to is deeply entrenched in most cultures?  I can’t really imagine a Medieval farming family feeling like they had a lot of time to sit around and watch Jersey Shore.  Imagine managing a farm, house, laundry and family with only a pair of oxen and a couple of kids to help.  Except that maybe it didn’t feel “busy” because it was normal:  there wasn’t an image of leisure against which to compare it.

“Busyness” has actually been a prevailing theme in Western culture since at least the Industrial Revolution.  Recall Wordsworth’s great sonnet, The World Is Too Much with Us:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

According to Wikipedia and their sources, Wordsworth wrote this around 1802 as an angry lament about “the decadent material cynicism of the time”.  While not a direct volley at busyness per se, the “busy ethic” is clearly part of his gripe.  We’re moving too fast, and focusing on the wrong things, thus sacrificing our human birthright of engagement with the natural world.  It’s all pretty familiar, isn’t it?

Naturally, there are meaningful distinctions between Wordsworth’s time and our own that make our lives truly fast-paced:  globalization, instant communications, messages pouring at us constantly from every conceivable medium.  And, in their book Busier than Ever!:  Why American Families Can’t Slow Down, social scientists Charles N. Darrah, James M. Freman, and J.A. English-Lueck have pinpointed specific ways in which North American families are busy in a different way than in previous generations.  For example, we set high expectations for our involvement with our children, and we have to race around between many different locations.

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s great paper Through the Crack of the Time Bind:  From Market Management to Family Management reveals that people adopt different strategies to manage chronic busyness.  Some endure it with little hope of change, some defer their play and leisure, some thrive on it, some delegate certain tasks (e.g. childrearing) so they can take on more (e.g. paid work) and some resist.

I find this idea of “resistance” tantalizing.  Hochschild’s resisters are people who “downshift” professionally, say by working 80%, in order to make more time for meaningful activities in their lives, like going on field trips with their children.  The term also makes me think of the infamous Ikea ad, where the man leaves his office at 3:00 pm, garnering applause from his colleagues.

Now, in real life, I should think that someone who left at 3:00 pm would be loathed by his colleagues because it leaves them stuck there to hold the bag.  And in an era of job insecurity, well, let’s just say leaving at 3:00 pm is a high risk option.  The reality is that many of us don’t have – or at least don’t feel we have – the means to resist busyness by working less.  No doubt there’s a political issue here, one worth fighting at a social level.  In the meantime, though, I want to share three strategies for coping with chronic busyness.  These are simple things I’ve seen people doing in the context of my research, and they seem to be surprisingly effective:

  1. Don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that busyness per se defines your worth or confers meaning to your life.
  2. Find the opportunities for connection within the busyness.  As one person I spoke with put it, “This is where life happens.”  In our family, for example, we’ve tried to set our schedules so we can have a family dinner most nights;   if we cook ahead for the week, we involve the children; we go for after-dinner walks on Saturday nights; we read aloud as a family.  These things don’t necessarily slow us down, after all, in one sense, they’re just more things to get done.  But they create a sense of living, not just running from one thing to another.
  3. Use proxies for peace.  Find symbols of your connection to the things that are meaningful in our life, and turn to them as needed.  One of my favourite proxies is Yeat’s poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree.  Written in 1888, it’s actually about Yeats’s own proxy for peace, his idyllic Innisfree.  It’s a quasi-utopian vision he held on to while slogging away in London.  I’ve never been to Innisfree, but the poem has always reminded me of my grandmother’s garden, where I spent some of the happiest hours of my childhood.  Everyone probably has their own peace proxies, but just try reading “Peace comes dropping slow” and see if you feel as harried after as you did before.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping

slow

Dropping from the veils on the morning to where the cricked

sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

 

By the way…just a bit of housekeeping.  I’m now publishing this blog under my maiden name, Lisa Meekison.

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