In the world of running, it’s known that those early minutes and miles are important in setting your pace. Once it’s set, your pace is much easier to maintain. In our lives too, the pace we set for our days become easier to maintain once we’ve established the routines and habits that determine that pace. For many of my peers in the U.S., that pace can border on frantic. “Busy, but good,” (or some variation thereof) has become the standard answer when someone asks how we are. We must be busy. If we’re not busy, we must not be doing worthwhile things. We must not be taking full advantage of our days, or being as efficient as we “should” be with our time. If we’re not busy, it must be because we don’t have anything important enough going on.
Where does this view come from? I think the answers are almost as numerous as the people who would answer them. For some, staying busy may be a way of avoiding–or if one is fortunate, of answering–a more serious but less pressing question: am I living the life I want to live? Am I fulfilled? Do I have people in my life who I love and who love me? Do my actions show who (or what) I love? Have I made the right choices in life? Surely being busy is a reassuring sign?
For others, it may be a way of proving to the world that one has indeed made the right choices, and that one has succeeded. The fact that I am so in demand and have so much to do is proof of the value of my contribution to the world (or to my own pockets–but it’s not polite to talk about that).
Maybe another type of person stays busy aimlessly and without intention, with activities that could easily be cut out of their lives. (But if I’m less occupied, I might get–horror of horrors–bored.)
And certainly for some, busy lives are a necessity: low wage jobs, financial obligations, and/or family obligations force some to work far more than the 40-60 hour weeks that many work, and to stay moving at home even when they’re not at a work site. Leaving aside for a moment why people are busy–the above examples are only illustrative–the question I’ve been asking myself is why we (not all Americans, of course, just me and almost everyone I know) are so accepting of being–no, aspiring to be–so busy. Why do we want to be able to say we are busy? I have to wonder if an important force behind it is the American conviction that a successful life is a life full of doings. People will see or hear the lists of projects, organizations, etc. that someone is involved in, and be more impressed the longer the list. And in all fairness, it is probably why we as a country are so dazzlingly productive.
I can certainly say of myself that I am tethered to this value of doing. I do not, for the record, want to be. Yet here I am, working on untethering myself, but still far from it. In this sense, Australia was a great teacher.
In the 18 months we lived there, thousands of miles away from the work I did and the activities I was involved in, I saw and experienced a different life. The people around me, working parents, retirees, at-home parents: they were not quick to say they were busy. Their lives were and are full, there was always something that needed to be done. But that rarely prevented them from stopping to talk for a while before continuing on their respective paths. They did not try to impress with their lists of accomplishments–or at least none that I’ve met did, despite the fact that some certainly could have. Even allowing for a moment that my sample of Australian culture could be skewed, and Australian society (in larger cities for example) is generally just as doings-obsessed as the United States, it still begs the question: is there something to this lack of value placed on being busy? Can I learn something from it?
I once had a person from the States ask me, while we were in Australia, what I did all day. The question, of course, itself carries a value judgement: are you busy? If you’re not, what’s wrong? But more pertinent to me was my own response. I rattled off a list of all the things I had done in the past couple of days, just to prove I am still doing a lot. I no longer want to answer that way, and I don’t want to be doing something all the time.
I am working on un-tethering myself from this mindset, but it is an old and deeply ingrained habit. I have made progress though: before going to Australia, I would not even have dared challenge myself to break this mindset. If my pace is broken, can I regain it? Can I reacclimate to my old life? The question should be: why do I want to?
And the answer is: I don’t want to, and I am working on removing from my life the sense of obligation that I have to. I don’t want to because there is more to life than being productive. There are more important goals for me, like making time to reflect on my life and constantly adjusting my choices to match my values: loving and serving others, being the best parent I can be, and tending to the state of my own soul, to name a few. Yes, my life is full. (How can it not be, with three kids, lots of family and friends, and work?) But when I have meaningful conversations with loved ones, they are not about time-saving hacks (those are useful, but not what I will value in my old age), but about our inner lives. So my goal for now is to have more meaningful conversations more often. It is to ask, and truly seek an answer to, “how are you?” It is to find joy and laughter, because those are among the first things that busy-ness steals from me. So is self-reflection.
Will I be able to change my mindset, if not my pace? I don’t know, but I am trying. And in the trying, I am hopeful that I can set a new pace.