The Busy Trap or the Active Life: Tim Kreider vs. Douglas Southall Freeman
“I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?”
While most of my friends have reacted positively to this article in the New York Times Opinionator section I find it rather irritating. There are two reasons this essay bothers me. The first is a somewhat superficial one. I don’t know much about Tim Kreider’s work but hearing about someone associated with journalism talk about four or five hours of effort a day being quite enough seems to me to explain why so much of what we read is so full of errors, fallacies and trivia. Tim Kreider may in fact be a hard working, credible writer, but most of his peers could probably benefit from a few more hours a day doing real research, understanding the math, checking the facts and verifying their claims and a few less hours with chilled pink minty cocktails. I realize that I have had a long standing complaint about the endemic misinformation that parades as journalism and that I may be arguing more with Kreider’s colorful rhetoric here than his actual argument.
The second issue, however, is more serious. Kreider points out that much of what keeps us so busy is not all that useful or important.
“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 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.”
This is the part that we all can relate to. We get so wrapped up in the flurry of activity that when there is a pause we feel a sense of panic. What to do next? Am I left out? Quick check email and find some new urgent problem to react to. It is certainly a problem and too much of our lives are consumed in this senseless churning. But the options that Kreider presents us seem rather limiting. If our only options are senseless busyness, meaningless emptiness or relaxing with friends and chilled pink minty cocktails I’ll be joining Kreider at the bar. But I think there are other options. The best one for must of us is to take that precious empty moment and use it to think about the long term. Are these projects really important? Does all this activity add up to something? Is it something that we as individuals/a company/a culture value and desire?
The other thing to realize is that not all energetic activity is “busyness.” Douglas Southall Freeman—a journalist from a previous era with a decidedly different work ethic–always had a lot going on and his calculations were very different from Kreiders:
“Most of man’s activity is between the ages of twenty-five and sixty. Those thrity-five years give him slightly less than eleven thousand working days. Those eleven thousand working days give to men something less than 750,000 waking hours. In those we achieve that which is our end as the night draws on and the balance of the years is reckoned.”
Douglas Southall Freeman “The Value of Time” 30 November 1924
While Freeman tried to squeeze the most out of evey day he did not think of himself as busy. The phrase the comes to mind is that he led an “active life.”
Freeman wasn’t hiding from existential emptiness. He loved what he was doing and thought it was important and worth doing. He certainly could have lived his life differently and all this activity is not without cost. I’m sure it had an effect on his family and eventually on his health. But it made for a rich, full life that had an impact on his friends, family, community and nation. Unfortunately, deliberate, valued, passionate activity seems forgotten and left out in our entertainment based culture.
“Work is the greatest satisfaction I know. Talk about delights, but to [my] mind there is no delight commensurate with that of a good long day’s work. If there is a prayer on my lips, it is that, a good day’s work, and a long one, an humble heart, and a strong one.”
Douglas Southall Freeman, Letter to Bettie A. Freeman, 8 May 1905
- The ‘Busy’ Trap (swiss-miss.com)
- Busyness: It Doesn’t Work (uselesstree.typepad.com)
- The Quiet Ones (nytimes.com)