Unpacking busyness

December 22, 2013

Unpacking busyness

Karachi is a big city with a big heart and strong, fast legs. Islamabad is a small town in comparison and suitably complacent and unhurried. And yet what connects the two is ‘busyness’ of the people who live and work there.

Replace Karachi with Lahore and Islamabad with Peshawar and it still holds true. Urban life in general is characterised by this one word ‘busy’. Ask someone how they are doing and you are likely to hear one of the many variations in response: ‘no time to spare’, ‘busy like a bee’, ‘can’t find a second to scratch my head’… These are obviously boasts and excuses disguised as complaint.

I use part-time domestic help at home. The gardener comes once a week for three hours and the cleaning lady twice a week for certain number of hours. There have been occasions when I have asked them to put in extra time and almost always they refuse because they are busy. They have to do multiple jobs on a daily basis to run their own households. Their running around and busyness is understandable. But we are not talking of them here. We are talking of business people, office workers, professionals, even students and the unemployed in urban centres.

They are busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety; because they have taken on additional work, responsibilities and activities of their own will; because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. They feel guilty and ashamed when they find themselves with a few minutes of doing nothing.

It’s a pity that the culture of busyness espoused by urban adults has permeated among our children. They are also busy, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes, extracurricular activities, tuition, homework, and sports and music learning that their thoughtful parents add to their routine. They end their day as tired as grown-ups. If weekends are any different, they are so only in the nature of activity; the addiction with staying busy keeps them busy - with phones, laptops, chores, yoga classes, and arranging children’s activities.

The young and the old don’t have to end up exhausted and too busy to smell roses, have a funny thought, or enjoy poetry. Except, they choose to be that way. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any 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. Being ‘free’ is supposed to be bad, and being busy is desirable because it makes you feel and seem important, useful, and in demand. So we all throw ourselves at work or anything else that gives us self-importance and self-worth.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when ‘menu’ buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion.

"I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter", says Tim Kreider, the author of We Learn Nothing. Stories abound of inspirations that come in idle moments, when you are doing nothing. How did Newton find the law of gravity? By sitting idle under an apple tree. How did Archimedes come up with the fundamental law of fluid mechanics? By taking a leisurely tub bath. A computer engineer friend tells me he thinks up the elements of the software he is developing during the morning shower. "Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do," wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth.

Inactivity is the crux of life, sufis of all ages have agreed. This is not to mean everyone stops working and taking care of things that need to be taken care of. Just that everyone needs some amount of time in a twenty four hour cycle when they are doing nothing. We need it to recharge our brain, awaken the creative powers all of us are born with, and to give our destiny a chance to talk to us.

Lay down, sit back, walk or swim leisurely, for a few minutes if not hours, every day. Empty your head of all thoughts that have to do with work and responsibility. Give yourself a moment to enjoy life, to be happy. Or are you too busy for that?

Unpacking busyness