On Being Busy

by Quinn O'Neill

792px-Workers_Welfare_at_a_Royal_Ordnance_Factory-_Life_at_Rof_Bridgend,_January_1942_D6232I’ve been busy lately, much busier than I’d like to be. A natural night owl, I’ve been forcing myself out of bed before the sun comes up and relying on caffeine to achieve normal levels of functioning. There’s seldom more than a cup of coffee standing between me and an embarrassing display of torpor that would see my glassy eyes staring blankly through my computer screen and drool puddling on the desk in front of me. I’ve mostly been occupied by things that don’t even interest me and it’s been over six months since I’ve read a book for pleasure or personal interest.

It’s seems respectable in Western society to be really busy. People who show up to work early, work long hours, come in on the weekends, and take their work home with them are described in flattering terms; they’re dedicated and hard working. The on-the-go, life-in-the-fast-lane way of living has been glamourized and marketed to us like fast food and squeezable tubes of yogurt. It’s not good for us, not as individuals and especially not as a civilization.

“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” is a common regret of the dying. Palliative care nurse, Bronnie Ware, says that she heard this from every male patient that she cared for. Women also had this regret, she explains, but were less likely to have been the breadwinners, since her patients were of an older generation. The men regretted missing their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship for life on “the treadmill of a work existence”.

When we devote all of our time to one thing, we necessarily neglect other things and some of them are bound to be important. It may be our health or our family and friends, or we may lose touch with what’s going on in the world around us.

At the risk of looking like a slacker, I recently perused news items on my computer at work. Reading a headline, I announced to a colleague that it been 1000 days that Bradley Manning had been in jail without trial. “Who’s that?” she responded. She hadn’t heard of him or seen the Collateral Murder video. It seems a lot of people haven’t. Manning’s taken a huge risk and already paid a hefty price, because, as he put it, “I want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” With a heavily biased media and a well-distracted public, truth is disappointingly impotent.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” We tend to devote our efforts to individual and small group goals rather than ones that we might set as a civilization. The latter may ultimately have a bigger payoff, but the reward is neither monetary nor immediate. We really don’t set goals as a human collective. We take charge of our own lives as individuals, but generally let civilization evolve as it will, without a specific outcome in mind. We’re like passengers on an airplane, too absorbed in our own work or by the in-flight movie to notice or care if the flight has veered off course.

As a civilization, we haven’t been consciously directing our evolution – certainly not in a biological sense but not in a more general sense either. We didn’t decide that we’d like to have widespread poverty and great social inequality and then implement political and economic frameworks to make it happen. The climate isn’t changing because we decided we’d like a warmer planet and then put a plan in place to heat things up. And we never got together as a species and decided to organize ourselves into our current nations. These things just kind of happen while we’re preoccupied with individual and smaller group concerns.

We do have common interests as humans, though: a non-toxic environment with clean air and potable water, human rights, security, and reliable information about important events, to name a few. These things can be easily lost through public complacency and tend to be very hard to reclaim. Protecting these interests isn't a job that offers monetary reward but it's as important as the jobs that do. Keeping ourselves aware of what’s going on in the world is a part-time job that responsible members of democratic society should accept with alacrity. As the late Aaron Swartz said, “This is your life, this is your country, and if you want to keep it safe, you need to get involved.” Maybe keeping our priorities in proper order is more respectable than simply keeping busy.