The Joys of Stillness

9 Jul

Recently, Tim Kreider published a piece in the New York Times called “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” where he extolled the virtues of being both lazy and ambitious. Krieder is not really talking about genuine busyness brought on by meaningful obligations, but all the small stuff that can take up a lot of room in our lives. In fact, Kreider insists “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.”


But when you think about it, constantly checking Facebook, or tweeting, or answering email, or staying late at work to complete a list of inane tasks that you can do tomorrow can really be desperate cry for validation—even if everyone else is doing it.

When I read Kreider’s piece, I thought of all the academics and activists I know. Folks who are, indeed, engaged in a whole range of cool projects and important things, but who were often crushed under the burdens of too many obligations, too many meetings, and just plain old too much stuff to do. Like Kreider, I believe there is virtue (and sometimes even productivity) in stillness. I know getting quiet and listening to what my spirit needs has helped me tremendously, both personally and professionally.

But what I want to call out today is the commiseration around busyness, as if that mess was cute. It goes a little something like this:

“Oh my God. I really want to do (xyz reasonable, soul-sustaining activity), but I’m super busy!”

“Oh my goodness. Me too! I have this, that, and the other self-imposed, toxic activity on my plate. Oh well. I’m super busy!”

And on, and on. Folks complain but it’s a badge of honor. What I’ve also noticed more and more frequently is the guilt-tripping that some “super busy” folk try to lay on those around them. Yes, the busyness police. Let me assure you that I will rebuke anyone trying to haze me with their to-do list. When I see those folks coming I try to ground and shield myself from the foolishness.

Lately, I’ve gotten back to reading for pleasure as one of the many ways I reject the narrative of busyness. (I know, an English prof who doesn’t have time to do the very thing she loved so much that she decided to do it for a living! It boggles the mind). My friend and colleague, Chantel, a talented novelist in her own right, has recommended and passed along several books that I’ve been holding hostage for months.  I’m reading those bad boys—without the nagging notion that I should be doing something “more important.” Come to think of it, I can’t think of anything more important than feeding my soul. Can you?

So, family, what are some of your methods for avoiding the busy trap and/or its guilt-seeking minions?

20 Responses to “The Joys of Stillness”

  1. Kristin July 9, 2012 at 8:07 AM #

    Love it! What a fantastic conversation to have. Once a week I try to do yoga with friends and every morning I make sure I have enough time for mediation, stretching and breakfast. It has helped tremendously.

  2. sexNspirit July 9, 2012 at 8:09 AM #

    meditation & from there progressing into living each day mindful & aware of the present keeps me from busyness. however, my current challenge maintaining this sense of stillness & rest when seeking new achievements & they are taking a long time to manifest. when that happens i begin to work more, feverishly, trying to make it happen sooner … even in my knowing that it will happen in its good time. thanks for this post! 😉

  3. slaytana July 9, 2012 at 9:33 AM #

    then there’s the guilt trap of the “I’m doing stuff that’s good for me!… losing weight, exercising, eating right, meditating, etc.” I’d like to hear a defense of doing the non-busy stuff that’s not about a Western idea of progress and self-improvement! Here’s to being not-busy getting drunk with my friends and chilling in the pool and making ridiculolus desserts!

    • Anni July 11, 2012 at 10:28 PM #

      Right?! I mean I need to work out and do yoga to stay sane as much as the next person….but for me, getting stupid drunk and sleeping in the next day every now and then is just as important as the more traditionally “relaxing, rejuvinating” activities. It’s cool to see someone recognize that relaxation takes a lot of different forms….and so does obligation.

  4. Jay July 9, 2012 at 9:36 AM #

    LOL…”The busyness police”, I love it. I avoid the busy trap by setting my phone to silent alert when I am doing an activity or relaxing. I have been told that I don’t have good text message etiquette because I don’t respond promptly to messages. Also, my family says that I NEVER answer my phone since I don’t keep it at my side at all times. These comments used to bother me but it doesn’t anymore. I love being still!

  5. Sharon Johnson July 9, 2012 at 9:53 AM #

    This is am important and timely topic of discussion. I am stuck, lock, stock, and barrel in the busyness trap. I have felt for a long time that my creativity, spontaneity and love of life have all suffered because I am busy all the time. I am a single mother of an eight year old daughter who has very busy social, cultural and extracurricular calendars. I work a full time and a part time job, active with the church, PTA, neighborhood association and I try to maintain reasonable contact with friends and family. I think I want to write. I know there is a bestseller in me just crying to get out but I can’t get still enough to hear my own inner voice. I would appreciate suggestions for slipping the trap hopfully without having to chew my foot off LOL.

    • lady July 26, 2012 at 8:32 PM #

      I’m wondering how you can have your daughter be less busy–if she has the Busy Syndrome at such a young age, there’s no way her caretaker can have a reasonable load. She could likely also benefit from unstructured time alone, time to reflect and to learn not to fear stillness.

      I hope you can both let go of some obligations somewhere and make time for these other possibilities. All you do sounds amazing and you clearly deserve to write your book.

  6. X O X July 9, 2012 at 10:08 AM #


    i feel this, and i’d like to complicate it a bit.

    when i had the privilege to live and work in the SF Bay Area, self-care and non-busyness were options. I also didn’t have health care – i had a PT gig as an adjunct professor and a bunch of other contracting or consulting gigs related to my activist / organizing life. I was one of those happy people always going to dance or music classes, going out and/or running around the lake, going to the farmers markets and to Alameda beach. I also had a wisdom tooth explode inside my head which caused a trip to the ER and precipitated my search for a “jobby job.”

    Now I have a “jobby job” with a 2nd gen white liberal elite feminist boss who can’t fully value my work (i teach a radical version of ethnic studies / cultural studies / environmental studies). it’s at a small private liberal arts “social justice” adult ed / nontraditional student institution, but that means way too much work if i want to keep the job. ironically but unsurprisingly, i now have benefits that i am too busy to actually use. My hour-long one-way Los Angeles commutes take up all the sane hours in between the job and sleeping, basic self-care and caring for the dog. I’m not very happy these days, just for short moments in between the refuge of the dog, the partner, .. and occasionally movement support work.

    I value stillness and love, happiness and joy, but I just want to bring up the reality of many people who don’t get to choose their work life or conditions. Being busy outside of those hours may be, in fact, self-care and self-preservation, when the job is toxic, and joy comes from non-job related activity. I think it’s important to help people find their own jugging acts of stillness and motion, work and non-work related activity, and to support those who have forms of it different from your own. i felt like there was some judgment of people talking about their busy-ness, and i fully recognize the behavior the writer is describing, and sometimes the commiserating of busy-ness, but i also feel that many folks do not have the choice that is described. or, it’s a choice between getting paid enough money for rent and food every month with some sense of reliability or having to hustle that amount every month. it gets tiring and can also cause depression, right?

    anyway, sorry for the long post. i support people being happy and joyful, and i recognize that it is rarely as simple as an individual’s personal *choices.*


    • crunkadelic July 9, 2012 at 10:21 AM #

      Thanks for the comment! I think you raise some really good points and I’m in agreement with you. Having experienced toxic work environments and times when I had little economic choice about structuring my time, I def understand. What I’m interested in today’s post, though, is a sort of busyness that self-imposed that is not a result of mitigating circumstances that you describe. That being said, I appreciate you complicating the conversation!

  7. focsimama July 9, 2012 at 1:51 PM #

    busyness comes from the idea/belief that we do not have a choice or choices. when in fact, we always have a choice. we choose what/who is important and those things get our attention. period. i agree, the “busyness syndrome” truly is a need for validation and self importance. no one is that “busy”!

    loving yourself, feeding your soul, and performing acts that will sustain your sanity are well worth the peace. the “busyness” that permeates our culture is akin to insanity, and root of a very large weed that is eating up things that are truly important and matter: like people and relationships and experiences that cannot be monetized and injected into this socio-democratic capitalist society we populate and keep going with our industrialized technotic busyness.

    i take one step closer to leaving the matrix daily. i want out of the madness! don’t want my children raised in, don’t want it perpetuated.

    stillness is wonderful. thank you for writing/sharing.

  8. silentlyheardonce July 9, 2012 at 5:56 PM #

    I stopped working 4 years ago for health reasons. I have friends who have retired early and they complain they are bored. Not me I have tons of things to do and happy that I do. Reading I do that as much as I can. Sorry I can’t help anyone with their to do list. I have my own. 🙂 Great article.

  9. Harmonious Foodie July 9, 2012 at 7:55 PM #

    Ummmmm Yaaaaaassss to the whole article.
    To prevent busyness I stay away from people, jobs and organizations that seem… mindlessly busy and/or stressed out. Seeing how organized actions/events/plans are and how well rested folks seem usually gives me an indication of whether folks are addicted to being crazy busy.
    Mindless busyness and a lack of planning/organization makes me cranky in a very profound way. I’ve learned that saying no is a great deal easier than dealing with myself when I have become cranky from lack of self care :D. Guilt trips be damned, dealing with myself once I have fallen off is more difficult than saying no to you.

  10. Amy July 9, 2012 at 10:31 PM #

    In a sense, I was thinking about this a few days ago. I believe that I have fibromyalgia because of this sense of obligation to so many other things, people, places. Many of them are good but because there was so much, they robbed from my soul and my body gave in (plus, there was that one boss). Sick. Permanently. May others of you be still out of self desire and control before your body forces you to sit still, sometimes, as mine does.

  11. Kenyetta Hughes July 10, 2012 at 1:29 AM #

    I watch media. TV and Movies to me are like books. I do read also. One of my favorite getaways from it all is to have dinner at Whole Foods when their hot bar is $2 off and read a new book on my Kindle app on my Iphone. But the movie place has always been my place of comfort since I was 18, 34 now. Every time I walk in the theater and the lights go dim, Im lost to the world. Im completely at peace.

  12. Subini July 10, 2012 at 5:55 AM #

    Many excellent points that I do not need to reiterate since you shared them with thoughtfulness. Thank you. Now I’m just wondering if you can share that reading list that your friend passed you. I just read: Leaving Atlanta and Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones and Wading Home by Rosalyn Story. All three were excellent and I’m looking for more.

  13. Chantel July 10, 2012 at 7:09 AM #

    So glad you wrote this post, as the inspiration piece has had me thinking for days about what is worthwhile “busyness” and what isn’t. Thanks for the shout-out, too!

  14. yes. iam a feminist July 10, 2012 at 7:10 AM #

    Reblogged this on Yes. I am a feminist. and commented:
    Perfect reminder

  15. marzipansmistress July 10, 2012 at 10:21 AM #

    I try to make one night a week off limits to planning. So, for one month I tell people that I can’t do anything on Wednesday nights. I don’t tell them what it is (they don’t need to know), but I save that time to just do nothing. I don’t even plan what I’m going to do with that time.

    Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When I’m feeling stressed, it helps to be able to look forward to one day in the week where I don’t have to please anyone but myself. It’s taken a while for me to be okay with protecting my time.

  16. tressiemc22 July 11, 2012 at 9:43 AM #

    Reblogged this on tressiemc.

  17. csmdavis August 10, 2012 at 10:03 PM #

    Just as you said – choosing to see things such as reading, as feeding the soul, as worthwhile and more important than those things that I allow to make me ‘busy’!

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