Busyness and the Passage of Time

Busy as the status quo.

I’ve talked before about noted Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and his ideas on idleness and boredom. Those excerpts came from a book entitled Either/Or: A Fragment of Life that focuses on how to live an ethical life.

Another part of this book also includes the topic of busyness, with Kierkegaard remarking that:

Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?

As someone who eats his food too fast (I simply don’t see much of the appeal in eating) I can definitely relate, with many people telling me to slow down. They’ll remark that I’m not savoring the taste or appreciating the meal that they’ve made or that I’ve chosen for myself, etc. In this case, I don’t think there’s much to really appreciate because food isn’t something that I (personally) think needs to be savored.

For me, food is a very mechanical process. It’s a routine-disrupting phenomenon whereby my activities that I’m engaged with need to be interrupted so I can keep on, well, existing. And to me that’s an annoyance that I’d rather altogether avoid. So therefore I tend to eat my food quickly most of the time.

Whatever my logic may be here (and I’m not claiming it’s airtight by any means) it has led to problems in my life. Even if there was some sort of “spiritual” goodness in being “present” with eating as Alan Watts might argue, I’ve certainly suffered in my health. I’ve developed heartburn that, while mild, is certainly caused by my ill-advised eating habit.

In any case people’s ability to make themselves busy often holds the sort of power over themselves that a dictator could be proud of. Every second of every minute of every hour and every day must be self-policed and done exactly right. If they’re not busy then they’re not living and if they’re not living then they might as well be dead.

That’s an extreme version of busyness to be sure, but many people still abide by the “idle hands” theory which tries to imply that the worst vices of humans tend to happen under idleness. But busyness isn’t that much better when it tends to force us to multitask and make us consider far too many externalities to meaningfully engage with.

As Stephen Evans, a philosophy professor at Baylor University remarks, “Everything is important but nothing is important…” when you are engaging in a certain level of busyness. Suddenly the things you want to do in your life aren’t present because you are so busy with everything else. Suddenly the things you don’t want to do seem to keep slipping into your daily routines more and more because they’re easier to acquire and stay stable.

Some people are simply happier being miserable:

The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself…- Kierkegaard

This absence is a reinforcing phenomena whereby one who doesn’t have a self also doesn’t want to think about the fact that they don’t have a self. And so people fill up their lives with things they either only half-heatedly want or things they settle for, even though they know it’s not making themselves happy.

As someone who grew up poor (not in danger of poverty poor but certainly not middle class either) I relate to this last bit a lot. I’ve literally told some people in my life that I’m content to just settle because being poor instills in you the feeling that you simply don’t deserve much more. Even if you don’t consciously act on that belief or encourage others to hold that view, it’s difficult sometimes to see past your own experiences and think there’s anything past them.

The current economic structure of state-capitalism doesn’t help because it endears us to the idea of settling, it’s what the current job culture is largely about! People love to say, “a job’s a job” or “hey, at least you have money” or, “be thankful you have something!” and so on and so forth. There are endless examples of people dismissing the very real complaints that I and others have made about work because it’s objectively better to have money than not having it.

But this real fact doesn’t say much or surely not as much as folks want it to. All it says is that people are better off having available resources that give them a higher probability of succeeding and completing their goals. But that doesn’t mean they should simply settle for any method that does it. Some methods are better than others and as you’d imagine getting a job isn’t exactly on my first recommendation.

Kierkegaard tries to get around a possible contradiction in an interesting way:

Of course, it’s possible to have an active life without being busy. Kierkegaard says that religious love, for example, is “sheer action.” But it’s action suffused with constant knowledge of a unified purpose, and so a sense of calm pervades the activity.

I’m not a very religious person, the ideas have never really appealed to me. I understand why they appeal to others but it doesn’t do much for me so I don’t have any first-hand knowledge here about “sheer action”.

On the other hand, watching other people and their religiosity you would think that all they have in their life is “sheer action” and that, however much a “sense of calm” pervades the activity, it’s thinly hidden behind the same busyness that surrounds much of the rest of society.

In other words, I don’t find this response very persuasive because it’s not very substantial or specific in its refutation. What “sense of calm”, exactly? And how does this sense negate any and all components of the “sheer action”? Is it even possible to be busy and have religious love for Kierkegaard?

…But I digress.

I’ll finish off this post by quoting the last few paragraphs of the Quartz article and responding:

If Kierkegaard had this view on busyness in the 19th century, he would likely be both amused and terrified by our frenetic pace and myriad means of distraction today—using Netflix to distract ourselves from contemplative solitude, deriving meaning from likes we receive on Facebook, and constantly evaluating our surroundings according to how they’d look on Instagram, rather than simply engaging in the present moment.

As someone who just watched Stranger Things (watch it) instead of feeling sad for 8 hours, I gotta say it was totally worth it to watch ST and share in the experiences of others. Yeah, it was a form of escapism and so are the video games I am playing, but dammit sometimes other worlds are simply more interesting and less sad than your own.

Not saying that what I’m doing is some sort of long-term solution but it often beats away the depression long enough for me to get a better hold of myself and what I want to do. It, in combination with eating, talking to friends, writing and going outside are often great ways for me to fight back against depression.

Though perhaps he wouldn’t be surprised. Philosophers such as Josef Pieper and Mark Tietjen have argued that Kierkegaard saw busyness as a form of sloth—at the other extreme to laziness, but a vice just the same. Busyness may not look like sloth as we typically imagine it, as a person lolling around and refusing to engage in any activity, but it’s a form of mental or spiritual apathy, a refusal to take up genuine and meaningful work and so, in this sense, it’s lazy.

The second passage makes an interesting point about busyness being an opposite vice to the vice of sloth (which I’d argue is a more contestable though still very real vice). The physical busyness turns into mental and “spiritual” apathy and therefore a laziness of a sort. This is an interesting (though too religious if I’d nitpick…and I will) idea to confront society’s current issues with busyness, by appealing its dislike of laziness.

That’s a double-edged sword for me but I’d still be interested to see how it played out in an argument.

On this reading, Aho says, Kierkhaard diagnosed busyness as a common flaw of the human condition. And so while it may be exacerbated by contemporary technologies, it’s not unique to our times—and will not subside unless we make a conscious effort to root ourselves in the present and engage with bigger questions to find meaning in life.

Lastly, there’s a great reminder that busyness isn’t unique to us and that while technology may have exacerbated it to some extent and in some important ways, it’s possible to get through this. Ironically, I think the very tools that should make us much less busy and more efficient are also the best tools to enslave us when ensnared in state-capitalism.

That, I think is at the heart of a lot of the busyness culture. It explains much about why we can’t design our own lives to be good or happy and why we have such a hard time existing instead of living.

Whether being “present” or not is going to help us, is another question. I’ve been daydreaming a lot and generally dream-like about someone who I want to see (crowd “Aww”s)  and it’s certainly making me feel happy. But I’d be lying if there isn’t a sense in which at a certain point I also have a sort of  romantic depression. A form of chronic, crushing and debilitating reminders that seeing this person would be really hard practically speaking.

So is thinking about this potential future helping me on the average? I’m not sure, to be honest. Is it possible to keep remembering the past and hoping for the future and yet live on in the present? Again, I’m not sure because a lot of these ideas that Alan Watts and others talk about often don’t strike me as very substantial.

There are certainly ways in which we can be “present” with each moment by trying to appreciate it more. We could probably do that by spending less time with technology but I don’t see why we should. Technology can help the enjoyment of moments last much longer and become more interesting as well. Why should we abandon these enhancements just so we can stay more “present” in the moment?

Some people have these issues with people who videotape at concerts or take too many pictures during their life. They claim that they’re not really living their life, that their camera is. And perhaps this is true in movies like Chronicle where the main character does almost nothing but record things through video. But at the same time, most people aren’t like that and even the ones who might be are still living some kind of life, just not a very engaging one, perhaps.

And I’m not even sure of that, to be honest. We all have modes of existence and engagement that work better for us and for some this means a closer relationship with technology than others.

Anyways, I’ve veered a bit off of the main track when it comes to busyness and time, so I think I’ll stop here for now.


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