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Is busyness an epidemic or an advancement?

Published: Monday, July 9 2012 9:56 a.m. MDT

Is busyness a choice?

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In lieu of the article "Women still can't have it all" in the Atlantic, Tim Kreider's article in the New York Times ignited a viral whirlwind that pivoted upon one question: who does have it all?

Busyness, Kreider observed, has consumed us. "If you live in America in the 21st century, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: 'Busy!' 'So busy.' 'Crazy busy.' It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint."

"Almost everyone I know is busy," Kreider wrote. "They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work."

"My initial response," Hanna Rosin at Slate reported in reaction to Krieder's article, "was a feeling of sweet revenge. After two weeks of working-mother angst prompted by the Atlantic's "Women Still Can't Have it All," I was delighted to have the tables turned. Obviously it’s not just women who can’t have it all. None of us can have it all."

"But after that brief moment of revenge/relief, I began to feel pretty uneasy, because what good does it do me that men live this way too?" she wrote. "In fact, the wanting it all is a disease not specific to women or loaded on us by feminism but a generalized global pandemic that’s destroying us all."

Our frantic days, Kreider wrote, may underly not only a "self-imposed" drive to succeed, but also a means of hedging against emptiness. "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."

For Rosin, this "really hit home" for her and made her "cringe in self recognition." "He’s right that busyness is a choice, but it’s not a choice choice; it’s more like a condition we are passively not resisting, a trap we can’t see our way out of."

Others had objections. "I disagree with Kreider’s conviction that this busyness is self-imposed," Kate Taylor at Forbes said. "As in the case of Slaughter’s article, the writer comes from a position of privilege, where they can cut down on their work hours and still not only survive but also be considered incredibly successful. However, even at the highest levels where it seems like freedom could be a job perk, idleness isn’t a possibility."

Rachael Larimore at Slate offers a Defense of Busyness from a mother's perspective. "Maybe someday I’ll wish that I had pursued a calling that required no more than Kreider’s four or five hours a day of work. Maybe I’ll regret that I never finished that novel I started," she said. "But as far as our kids go, the time from birth to college goes ... a lot faster than you ever think it will when you’re doing 2 a.m. feedings, and it’s going to be over all too soon. If they are getting positive experiences out of activities and trips — friendships, hard work, good memories, learning the values and rewards of hard work — I will shuttle them around town and serve dinner in shifts as long as I have to."

Having "fled town" to an undisclosed location, Kreider emphasized the need for the "space and quiet that idleness provides." For him, it is "a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done."

"In my better moments," Rosin concluded, "I aim to live the way Katie Roiphe suggested in her Financial Times response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece: We should embrace the chaos, screw the balance, revel in those days when we get home too late and wake up groggy to a toddler sticking Band-Aids on our half open eyes, and then steal some more sleep by handing over a box of cookies. But the same thought keeps coming back to me: I don’t want to be busy. I don’t want all my friends to start their messages to me with the sentence 'I know you’re really busy but ….’ ”

"Perhaps the world would soon slide to ruin if everyone behaved as I do," Kreider wrote. "But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle."

Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News.

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