Saying no to busy

I took a summer vacation in Alaska.

Geographically, Alaska is basically my home province of British Columbia, but emphatically less crowded. (My cubicle is more crowded than Alaska.) It was a glorious feeling to be in a tourist hub on a peak summer weekend and still feel the unmistakable sensation of space around me. This is a physical impossibility in Vancouver.

Another thing that was notable in Alaska: nobody once answered, to the how-are-you question, “I’m just so busy right now.”

This phrase is something I hear all the time in my metropolitan life, from my own mouth as well as from others. The truth is, I am busy, and so are my friends. There are a lot of people to know and things to do.

My husband and I were in Alaska for vacation, but also to see some family who live in a fishing village on Kodiak Island, accessible only by boat or air. I got the impression no one had to schedule coffee three weeks out to see their supposedly closest friends.

My family and their friends in Kodiak are busy: they work full time. They volunteer. They have families and sports and tight-knit churches. They go on trips. But I could feel the lack of constant pressure to always be doing something. And the lightness felt good.

Tim Krieder famously decried “The ‘Busy’ Trap” in his widely-shared 2012 opinion piece in the New York Times. He argues that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.” Basically, he says, we are busy (or claim to be) to assure ourselves of our own significance, that our existence is necessary.

But this pressure, almost always self-imposed and, I would speculate, more common in cities and suburbs, is rarely positive. It often prevents us from investing in important relationships. It can fill up all the empty space that allows for creativity and critical reflection. It reinforces my selfish ambitions to be somebody by doing lots of stuff. And, though it’s hard to admit, my busyness can create anxiety when I have to “drop something” to help someone in need, instead of graciously making someone else the priority.

One of the highlights of visiting Alaska was seeing the closeness of these small communities, where being busy means something so different than where I live. When an emergency happens (which is often, it turns out, in the unregulated wildness of Alaska), busyness doesn’t get in the way of community.

I think it’s time to step back from the busyness, to evaluate what I do. Because like Franny Glass in J.D. Salinger’s classic, “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.



Photo (Flickr CC) by Mark Steven.