The Great God Busyness

I am spending today lying on the couch, reading mystery novels by Georgette Heyer and how-not-to-feel-bad-about-being-fat books by Geneen Roth. I know that this is wrong, that I should be doing something else, but I can't help it. I'm tired. I'm listless. It's raining outside and I don't really want to move.

It would be better if I were busy. Being busy is a great excuse for pretty much everything. "Sorry, I can't help you, I'm busy." "No, I don't have time to talk on the phone with you, I'm busy today." "Let's get together when we're not so busy." But heaven forbid if you're just not feeling like getting together or helping or talking on the phone. Then you're just rude. Or selfish.

And yet, I feel like I should be busy. It is wrong not to want to be doing something. "Go outside. Do something. Do anything other than sit on your butt reading, for goodness' sake!" Whose voice is it that I hear when I tell myself these things? "You're worthless if you're not busy." "Since you're not busy right now, why don't you do x?"  But what if I don't want to do x?  What if I just want to sit here?

My husband went into work today, which makes it even worse.  He's being good.  He's busy today, whereas I am just wasting my life, doing nothing.  Not that he would ever say this; he likes sitting on his butt, just reading.  And yet, he works.  And works.  And works.  All the time, even when he's at home.  He says I work a lot, too, but I know he's wrong.  I'm lazy.  I'm sitting here on my butt, reading.

I hate being busy, I think that claiming to be busy so as to get out of things is rude.  And wrong.  Busyness is a choice, a dodge, a smokescreen, a lie.  Nobody is ever that busy.  Not when they don't want to be.  "I'm busy" is not a statement of fact, it's a judgment: "I'm too busy to pay attention to you."  It's a way of keeping life at a distance, refusing to engage.  "I'll get to that when I'm not so busy."

So why do we worship busyness so much?  Isn't what we want more leisure?  Time, in fact, to do exactly what I am doing today, sitting on my butt in my decluttered, calm, perfect apartment, with my dog under the table and my son home on vacation from school?  And yet, here I am, feeling anxious because I don't have some project in hand, some activity to do, something, anything to take my mind off the fact that (wait for it)...everything is okay.  I'm not even fat anymore.

Roth has an insight in the book that I'm reading at the moment*, about wanting and how spending our lives wanting (to be thin, to be rich, to be anything other than we are at this moment) is a way of protecting ourselves against actually being alive--and no longer in control.  In her words:
When we spend our lives wanting, we can dream about how it will be when we get exactly what we want.  That incurs no disappointment, no risk, no vulnerability, no chance of being hurt.

When we spend our lives in the present moment, with what we already have (the other side of wanting), we lose control. The things we love get lost or shattered or stolen. People leave us. People die. As soon as we realize the preciousness of what we have, we realize that someday we might lose it.
Like wanting to be thin, being busy protects us from all of this.  "I'll be able to enjoy things when I'm not so busy."  Except that being busy has become our default.  Which means, if we're tired or listless or don't really feel like doing anything, we can excuse ourselves: "I've been so busy.  I deserve a break."  As if we would not deserve a break otherwise.  As if we did not deserve to be alive.

According to Roth, this is our payoff for constantly dieting.  It is also the reason so many of us binge.
The idea that bingeing is a sign that you need to give yourself more and not less (food, attention, etc.) contradicts the widely accepted belief that bingeing is self-indulgent. When, after a binge, you have the courage to "indulge yourself" by providing pleasures for yourself that aren't culturally accepted, you are perceived as a threat to the established norm. When you make yourself different from those around you, when you say, "I need time for myself; I'm not going here and I won't do that for you today, and I know you need this but right now I am taking a bath," people stop and stare. They "tsk, tsk," they call you selfish. And then you wonder if they're right. And then you think that they are right: You are selfish. You don't deserve time for yourself, look at all you could be doing instead. That makes them feel better. Now they don't have to deal with the feelings that your taking time for yourself brings up in them. You are no longer a threat to their shaky self-concepts, to the parsimony in their lives. Good for you. Now you can binge again.
But that's where we're wrong.
Deserving time for yourself is not a function of how smart or pretty or thin you are. Deserving time for yourself is not a function of how much you did or didn't accomplish that day. Deserving time for yourself is a function of the fact that you are alive and deserve to have time for yourself.
Perhaps if I were eating, I wouldn't feel so anxious about not being busy today. 'Cause, then, see, I'd be doing something, not just sitting here feeling guilty about not having something more important to do.

*Breaking Free from Emotional Eating (New York: Plume, 1984).


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