Americans are such obsessive doers that every trend article about how busy we are ends up shoving readers against a wall. We’re tagged as (1) frantic jugglers or (2) bored retirees and empty nesters or (3) energetic sixty- and seventy-year-olds embarked on a "meaningful" second career.
In his New York Times piece “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says too many of us rush around boasting about how busy we are in order to fend off existential emptiness. Undoubtedly, some of us do. But what if you aren’t a boasting personality or have a very different definition of what busyness means?
Take, for example, me. Yes, I’m busy. On the surface, I’m in the first category: I have a ten-year-old child and husband and friends. I have parents with degenerative illnesses who live 3,000 miles away. I’m such a frequent traveler that I have Premier status on United Airlines. I teach part-time. And—oh, yes—I run an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization.
Of course I feel "crazy busy" and overextended. I even complain about it. But if anybody in my current life dared to respond with That’s a good problem to have or Better than the opposite (what Kreider calls stock responses that are “a kind of congratulation”), I’d be tempted to slap the glad-hander.
I am busy. Some of this is self-imposed, but much of the juggling has to do with family and financial demands. I could make a feminist argument here, though I won’t. I will say that competing demands can make me internally nuts at times, distracting me from the work I love. But my people, unruly as they are, give my life meaning. They matter. I haven’t simply convinced myself that I’ve got to keep busy in order to fight off inner emptiness.
I’m a writer. Like many literary and artistic types, that means I’m an introvert. That also means that I’m prone to analyzing and reflecting on almost any molecule that crosses my path. Forever and always, I have contended with a constantly chattering, teeming internal world.
The inside of my head is busy, busy, busy—possibly as a defense against difficult events in my life, or because I’m more comfortable fantasizing than facing stressful situations “out there.” But I’ve never felt empty.
In her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that Americans have been besotted with the extrovert ideal since the early 1900s. In their most classic form, extroverts are exuberant fast-talkers who favor action over thinking. They’re salespeople. In Cain’s account, it’s no accident that the Culture of Personality (desired traits: “Magnetic…Stunning…Energetic”) replaced the earlier Culture of Character (“Duty…Honor…Integrity”) just as U.S. corporations were on the rise.
Cain notes that "Introverts and extroverts also direct their attention differently." Referring to one study about problem solving, she writes:
"[T]he introverts tend to sit around wondering about things, imagining things, recalling events from their past, and making plans for the future. The extroverts are more likely to focus on what’s happening around them. It’s as if extroverts are seeing ‘what is’ while their introverted peers are asking ‘what if.’"
Maybe today’s extroverts are desperately scrambling to keep busy because America has let them down. Who can blame them? But when I think about the "busy trap" problem as an introvert, Kreider’s humorous take seems like just one more round of American extroversion drowning out the quieter among us.
He’s another self-confessed writer. I’m with him when he argues that “[t]he space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections….” The thing is, this isn’t “idleness.” It’s a legitimate work style for introverts. Yet, here’s Kreider on his “own resolute idleness”:
“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.”
Well, I agree that four or five hours of writing a day is plenty. But are most writers lazy—really? This is just aping the extrovert’s point of view. Even when he’s taking his leisurely afternoon bike rides, I’d hazard that he’s thinking about something. Kreider is making fun of himself and his own entitled lifestyle, but in doing so he manages to erase what it means to be a busy writer or a thinker or just an internally-driven human being.
He refers to the “present hysteria” about busyness, but this kind of inflated phrasing (media-ready to hook glazed eyeballs) and his claims of not being busy deny that anything important is going on inside our heads.
For the most part, I love all my mental busyness, although I’ve taken up meditation in the last decade. (Every once in awhile, I want everyone inside to shut up.) My struggles from college onward have always involved finding enough time to write—that is, for getting the space I need in my outer life in order to retreat inward into my very own busy maelstrom.
An extrovert—or an introvert columnist jumping to the extrovert tune—might call this my need to do nothing. But I don’t call thinking doing nothing.
Long ago, I asked my now-husband, who is an extrovert, if he could handle living with a writer. “When it looks like I’m just staring into space,” I told him,” I’m writing. I’m actually doing something.”
That was in the late-1980s. I wasn’t hysterical. I wasn’t an automaton responding to the latest cultural trend. I also wasn’t prescient. I was just mentally busy me, and the guy married me anyway.
Publishing Information: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012). The quotes about character traits appear on pp. 23-24. The problem-solving quote appears on p. 168.
For all introverts in need of a boost, Quiet is fun and often inspirational. Cain talks a lot about her own introvert struggles. Her wry description of attending a Tony Robbins workshop is worth the price of a Kindle download.
Art Credits: All the images in this post are in the public domain and appear courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
- “A girl riveting machine operator at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant joins sections of wing ribs to reinforce the inner wing assemblies of B-17F heavy bombers, Long Beach, Calif.” by photographer Alfred T. Palmer, 1942.
- “Our Busy Old Women” by J.S. Pughe, chromolithograph published by Keppler & Schwarzmann in 1899. LOC description: “Print shows a large monument constructed ‘A.D. 1898’ showing statues of President William McKinley labeled ‘Administration,’ General William R. Shafter labeled ‘Army,’ and Admiral George Dewey labeled ‘Navy,’ and a plaque that states ‘To Commemorate the Spanish-American War which has raised the United States Army and Navy to a proud position not only in the eyes of Americans but in the eyes of the World’; also, a gang of ‘Old Women’ [various journalists] with ropes trying to pull down the statues.”
- “6 P.M. Making hair-brushes” by photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, 1912. Additional description by Hine: “Hausner family, 310 E. 71 St., N.Y. Frank is 6 years old, and John is 12. The mother had a sore throat and wore a great rag rapped around it, but she took it off for the photo. They said they all (including the 6-year-old) worked until 10 P.M. when busy. Their neighbor corroborated this. She said, ‘It’s a whole lot better for the boys than doin’ nothin’.’ The mother said the night work hurts their eyes, and John said so too. He was not very enthusiastic about the beauties of work. All together, they make about $2 a week.”
- “Women at war (Mrs. Smuda)” by photographer Howard Liberman, 1942. Additional description by Liberman: “The sweetest lady I ever met…Dear Mother, I won’t forget.” So reads this pillow, sent Mrs. Smuda by her youngest son now at camp. But unlike Whistler’s immortalized parent, the mother of the Smuda family spends little time in an armchair. She’s much too busy working for Uncle Sam at the Frankford Arsenal and taking active care of her home and family after hours.”