I hear a lot, often, in work, in Freemasonry, in all aspects of life, how busy people are. Busy. Busy bees, working around the hive, always moving, always… doing. I heard once someone say “we should be less ‘human doing’ and more ‘human being.’ I thought they were a little crazy. We’re always humans being, and we’re always humans doing, too. That’s what we do. We just… do. As an adjective, to be busy means “to have a great deal to do.” As a verb, it means to ‘keep occupied.’ The first known use of the word is before the 12th century C.E…. so we know people have been ‘actively doing things’ for some time. Hence, humans have always been busy.
Listen to the word in common English conversation now, and the word tends to be laced with more judgment. Thoreau said, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” The quote is intended to be self-reflective and self-directed. We must ask the question, to what are we applying our time? Is it worthy? Is it constructive for our needs and wants? Does it go to enrich us, feed our families, or improve the greater good? WHY are we busy? It’s easy to be busy: cleaning, cooking, laundry, writing, reading, caring for our families, running people around. Much of the time, we’re so stuck in ruts of “doing” that we forget to ask “why” or “is there a better way?” I find myself continually doing something and then wondering if I really need to be doing this task that task. Is there a different way to do it? Can I make myself less “busy” and more productive? These are two very different things.
“Life is simple, yet we continue to make it complicated.” Confucius was right – we are creatures keeping busy making many things complicated, if not everything. Complication is not creation. It’s just a headache waiting to happen. What do we complicate with “busy?” Our relationships. “How are things?” “Really busy, you know?” These opening salvoes in communications with others beg us to talk about what our activities have been. What have we been applying our time? When people tell me “wow, you’re really busy,” I think “not so much.” I think about if the time I’ve been spending, like wadded up cash in my pocket, is really been put toward worthwhile things. Have I been a slug? Or have I been working on bettering things?
Where does it get complicated? It gets complicated in the swamp of judgment. Not judgment of ourselves – judgment of others. Are our friends busy with work? Busy with “play” or busy with children. As yourself, “Do I place more importance on one than on another?” If you’re honest with yourself, you probably do. There is an implicit bias in North America, particularly the United States, that if you’re busy with children, your life has far more importance than if you do not. American businesses are geared toward relieving parents in times of hardship and our social services and whatnot are far more supportive of parental and childhood needs than of those without children. Think, “mental services” versus “child services.” Reflect and be honest – which do you think is more deserving of financial and labor support?
I do not have children of my own, and most of my friends know this. Most of my acquaintances as well. I have other friends who do not have children and hear some of the same ‘feedback.’ There is an underlying judgment in my brand of “busy” versus the parental brand of “busy.” In all honesty, I do my best to let it go because I know the choices we all make. I only ask that people don’t judge me and mine in return.
Robert Louis Stevenson was more absolute: “Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality.” I have to wonder at this. What makes being busy being less vital? To Webster, vitality is, “the power giving continuance of life, present in all living things.” This leads me to believe that RLS was talking about the ability to discern where you put your time versus just placing your activity “somewhere,” to an indefinite purpose. In this time of the the year, the Winter Holidays, people are “busy” – running here and there to get one last gift, get the groceries, make party and dinner decorations, send cards. I believe that RLS is saying that we should judge what we’re placing our time into and its meaning.
I think we forget that there really is a time for everything… with a nod to the KJV of the Bible and the Byrds. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” I would not be so dogmatic as to say “this is the time for sewing, and now this is the time for dancing.” I think, though, that we have to look for balance. What this author, and Pete Seeger were saying is there is a moment for everything and we need to relish, support, sustain, and then let go of that moment. This means the busyness in our lives should not be mindless – it should exist with purpose. If there’s no purpose, why do we do it?
As I grow older, I find myself torn between the busyness of youth and the contemplation of maturity. I eschew watching television in favor of reading, forego quick coffee for a good French press, and strive to make dinner rather than eating out. I think, probably far too much now, about why I do things before doing them. I like to pause before opening my mouth and think about the words I want to say, rather than just blurting them out to “move on.” I like silence. I find comfort in waiting. I wait for both sides of the story, rather than just one. I don’t mind waiting for someone on a meeting, if they are late. It certainly wasn’t always this way; yet, I still find time to get a lot done – like writing and photography, like working, gaming, and sleeping. I think it takes time to build your life in such a way as to find stillness and thought refreshing, restorative. Being busy was what I did. I’m still busy; I hope that now I am more thoughtful about it.
I contemplated this during some recent activities with my Lodges. People were all talking about how busy they were. It brought me right back to my apprenticeship in Freemasonry. We are reminded that there’s only so many hours in a day, and like the quote above, it’s all spent “doing” something – sleep, meditation, refreshment, study, labor – but we are specifically directed to be doing it all in the service to humanity. This is another motivation to think about what we do and why we do it. Ego and self-glorification are fleeting and thin. Working toward a greater good is something that can send the satisfied person to sleep with a smile. Well, at least it does me. I find that the more I do work with a better purpose – something better than making my personality feel good or just “getting away with what I can,” I just, well, feel better. Better. As in, more satisfied with a job well done, rather than just a job done. Why am I busy? Because there is work that needs to be done that is important work. It takes time to stop and figure out what “important” is; perhaps it takes finding that in yourself before you can apply your hands to it. Or, perhaps, it should. My job this next year is to take even more time to apply what time I have to important things. This is the time to think about what is important, before the new year comes.
“You should sit and meditate for twenty minutes a day. Unless you are too busy; then you should meditate for an hour.” – Zen Proverb, Unknown