At the beginning of a recent week, I looked at my calendar with surprise. Besides the requisite errands, my week was surprisingly empty.
In a near-panic, I did what any self-respecting person of the modern era does: I called friends and volunteered to watch their kids. I called other friends and planned outings. I invented errands just to get out of the house. I decided to repaint my office, spray paint a bedside table and end the week by throwing a harvest party in the backyard.
Only after the week’s end, when I was dutifully exhausted and overwhelmed, did I look back and realize what I had done. I had once again fallen prey to society’s addiction frenzy, the frenzy that comes from finding merit in a crammed schedule.
Ask people how they’re doing these days, and a common reply is “Busy!” As if busy has now become an emotion right along with happy, sad or fearful.
We members of the LDS Church are some of the worst perpetrators of the busy lifestyle. We wear our chock-full calendars and to-do lists like merit badges. You’re not living up to your full potential unless you stumble into church looking as if you’ve run a to-do-list marathon.
I feel this pressure especially from mothers. All the phone talk and park talk is of the multiple demands for our time. These are the bragging rights of parents today, and it’s hard not to feel a little inferior if you don’t have every night of the week booked with soccer, karate, piano, dance lessons, math club and tutoring. If I let my kids play outside after school, spinning circles and drawing with sidewalk chalk, I feel the guilt creeping in, especially when I see other mothers in their SUVs driving back and forth to basketball practice.
We feel this way as parents even if we’ve just heard conference talks about slowing down and cutting out activities that pull us away from the home. We feel guilty, even when we hear more studies about how overscheduling our kids turns them into adults who don’t know how to navigate the real world. There is still a sense that we’re missing a key part of life if we don’t drop into bed at night exhausted from the day’s activities.
The ironic part, of course, is that no one benefits from this arrangement. The world is not getting happier. Everywhere I go, I see moms with tight, fatigued faces. Kids don't seem particularly pleased, either. The complaint I hear from my kids when I’ve scheduled one-too-many activities is, “Mom, I just want to play.” Oh, yes, that. Better put it on the calendar before I forget.
Of course, being busy in not the crime. After all, the early Saints chose the beehive as a symbol for their work ethic. The problem comes when we try to find purpose in simply filling our days. My dad has a phrase: “transfixed by the tangential,” that he likes to use in referring to this modern-day phenomenon.
When I worked as a newspaper editor, we talked a lot about “effective use of white space.” When you put together a newspaper page, you don't crowd a page with text and photos, because a reader’s eye needs some breathing room, some white space. Likewise, we need to make a concerted effort to find that white space in our lives.
So here’s a challenge: Take a family walk after dinner. Sit on the back porch and watch the leaves drift down from the trees. Turn on music and listen with your eyes closed. Read poetry out loud. Pick one activity on your calendar and find a way to remove it from your life.
It’s not easy to put the brakes on. It means saying no to a lot of good and worthy activities. It means being comfortable with some blank space on that calendar.
Last week, in the middle of another busy day, I took my toddler on a walk to the lake, where we stood at the water’s edge and threw rocks.
It felt supremely indulgent. After a token 10 minutes, I felt the to-do list attitude start to creep up on me. There were rooms to paint, people to serve and then I took a deep breath. This was living, right here on the banks, skipping pebbles with my son. Listening to the plunk of each stone, watching the water ripple out in concentric circles — it was downright addicting.
Now that’s the kind of addiction I can live with.
Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com.