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We Need to Talk About Our Compulsive Busyness
It's Back-School-Season & Everyone's Exhausted
It was Day 1 of the back-to-school routine, and my friend was already tired. There had been a brief parent meeting with her kid’s music instructors before lessons began, and she missed it. The instructors told the daughter, who was dropped off late, that if her mom could come in for a few minutes, they’d appreciate it. A moment later, the mother came blustering into the studio, apologizing to everyone.
After receiving a five-minute orientation from two twenty-something instructors, my friend stopped to chat with me in the lobby. “I hate it,” she told me. “I live in my minivan. I just take my kids from one thing to the next.” I nodded empathetically. Then she rushed off. She was late for therapy.
I am seeing more of this everywhere I look. With few exceptions, most people I talk to inevitably complain of overwork, exhaustion, and their inability to keep up with an increasingly demanding schedule. For lack of a better term, let’s call this “busyness.” But not just any kind of busyness—a cultural compulsion to be active each and every moment, at nearly all costs.
One mom I recently ran into told me her kids are enrolled in one activity every night of the week, except for one. They are six and eight years old. They also attend private school. “I know it’s a lot,” she admitted, “but it’s usually only for thirty minutes at a time, and I can handle that… for now.” She just signed up the six-year-old for speech therapy, because “it’s cute to be mispronouncing words at three… but at six, I shouldn’t have to be translating for her.”
I am not immune to any of this. Both my children attend private schools. At the time when their mother and I signed them up, we thought we were doing something good for them. Now, I’m not so sure.
It’s Just Too Much
When I dropped off my own child at music lessons, they asked the parents to sign up for a new messaging app to communicate with the instructors. Another parent asked if we were moving off the old app and could use this one for all communications.
“No,” the instructor said, “Still use that one for private lessons. But use this one for group updates. We’re trying to move more stuff over to the new one, but for now you should use both. And if you need to communicate with billing,” he added, “you can send us an email.”
One week before entering sixth grade, my eleven-year-old received invitations to no less than half a dozen pool parties, movie nights, and back-to-school events. That same week, there were two events that parents were expected to attend. I couldn’t make either. A good friend with a child the same age as mine said with a sigh, “It’s just too much to keep up with.” He is the principal of his son’s school.
At my daughter’s school, the administration hosts regular parent education events and “dad cookouts,” as well as coffee get-togethers after drop-off on Fridays. A few times per month, I am invited to various extracurriculars to help support my child in her second-grade education. Once, my wife and I attended an informational session for a book we read that was recommended by the school. Almost every parent at the meeting said they felt like they weren’t doing enough for their children. No one is telling them that it might be too much to begin with.
Recently, my wife enrolled one of her daughters in a local theater production. After the first meeting, she was instructed to text a multi-digit code to a telephone number. When she did this, an automated response asked her to confirm her name. She did. Then it asked her to confirm more personal information. She did that, as well. After this, the text bot told her to download a new app so she “wouldn’t miss a message.” Within an hour, she had received five text notifications reminding her to check the app for various updates. Within a day of downloading the app, she realized that every app update is backed up with an email, saying you can use the app or email to respond. She deleted the app.
At my son’s school, parents are encouraged to use an app to communicate with each other. Almost every day, someone is complaining about how worried they are about all the homework their child is receiving. They—the parents—can’t keep up. Then there’s a Facebook group for something I can’t recall, Google classroom for who knows what, and GMail so that my middle-schooler can communicate with his teachers when he simply cannot wait another twelve hours until he sees them again. There’s also IXL, which has something to do with math, and an app for soccer when he does that.
None of these is the same app.
On top of all this, there’s my email inbox for when something might fall between the cracks. And let’s be honest: something is always falling between the cracks.
An Epidemic of Activity
I run a business. My wife also runs a business. We both have contractors and employees we are responsible for, as well as clients who require our attention and care. She homeschools her two daughters. We both are trying to raise four healthy children in a newly-blended family, cooking most meals at home and trying to get our food from local sources whenever possible. We have a small lawn to mow, bills to pay, and sleep to get. We do not even consider ourselves some of the “busy ones.” Still, there is little time to teach our kids all the lessons and principles we want to impart.
In spite of all this, we go for a walk almost daily, coercing the kids away from their screens to join us for a little exercise. When we do this, we are almost always the only people out walking. If we do see someone out, they are usually walking a dog, staring at a screen or talking into it.
We live in the suburbs, in a small town about forty-five minutes south of Nashville, surrounded by farmland. Every house we walk past is the size of a small castle. It’s all pretty normal to us now, but it often occurs to me that in no other period of history would this be considered anything other than opulent. This, by the way, is a middle-class neighborhood.
Every house in our subdivision has more than two vehicles parked out front. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see three or four cars, sometimes as many as five, sitting outside two- and three-car garages that are filled with tools and workout equipment. The vehicles fill up their owners’ driveways and spill out into the streets. The HOA firmly reminds us via email that there is no street parking overnight, but everyone ignores this. There’s just nowhere else to put them.
These same houses come with front porches. In the past year, I have seen someone on their porch no more than twice. In fact, even that might be a stretch. I don’t want to say zero, though, because there may have been one time; though, I cannot recall it. Which is to say, these people—of which we are a part—are living lives so full, so frenetic, that we simply do not have time to enjoy them.
I am hesitant to share all this, scared someone might read it and think I’m judging. But this is a confession. As you can see, our life is not much different. It causes anxiety to share these observations, because any sane person can see the situation and say, “Well, if you don’t like it, change it!” But being aware of the fact that you are swimming in a fish tank and being so bold as to leap out are not the same thing.
This compulsive busyness is cultural and not particular to one nation. Calling it a disease would not be hyperbolic—in fact, it’s an epidemic. But you’d never tell a cancer patient to just not have cancer. It wouldn’t be their fault if they’d been exposed to a polluted water source, unknowingly poisoning themselves for years with each sip. You might empathize with such a soul, gently nudging them to stop drinking bad water. Of course, they could very well say, “What the hell else am I going to drink?!”
I know not everyone in the world lives like this. But many do. A lifestyle of incessant and frantic activity seems so common in the developed world that most simply take it for granted. It is a given and, in many cases, preferable to just sitting around. Many I know seem to think such busyness is the necessary corollary to mere subsistence. But I am not so sure that industriousness and anxiousness have to go hand in hand.
Regardless, this shit is exhausting. I feel crazy for even bringing it up. But someone has to.
Not long ago, I chatted with a friend who runs a music school. The school regularly hosts live concerts where parents, friends, and relatives can see their children perform on stage, in makeup, in full rock star regalia. I asked my friend if he ever feels conflicted about introducing children to a culture of performance as a means of gaining acceptance.
“I’ve never thought about it,” he said.
Time to Slow Down
When I was nine years old, my parents moved out of the Chicago suburbs to a small town in northern Illinois. The population was 1100 people. Last time I visited, nearly twenty years later, it had ballooned to just over 1300. Half the community lives on farms, surrounded by cornfields. The other half lives in town, which consists of maybe twenty to thirty blocks of small houses attached to small yards.
We lived in an apartment for a year and a half, then my parents bought a thousand-square-foot home and moved in. There were two bedrooms and one bathroom for our family of five. My sisters slept in one room, and my parents in the other. I had the unfinished basement all to myself. We also had a kitchen with a dining table, a living room, and a mudroom where our coats and shoes and computer desk went. I never thought of our house as big or small; it was home. I often complained of being bored, of never having anything to do. I couldn’t wait to leave.
After high school, I moved three hours down state to attend a liberal arts college where I received a bachelor of arts degree. The next year, I toured the country with a band, playing music for a living, then moved to Nashville. At that time, I wanted to be surrounded by people, to get in on the action. Living near a city felt exciting to me, especially after being surrounded by “country people” for most of my life—the kind of people who, to my restless eyes, seemed lacking motivation and ambition.
While living in middle Tennessee, surrounded by many upper middle class people, I went to work for myself as an author: publishing bestselling books, teaching online courses, and speaking on stages all over the world. Every year for five years straight, my income doubled. A few times, I was even recognized in public places. At first, all of this was exciting, then tiring, and finally meaningless. No matter what I did or had, it was never enough.
Last year, I married a Canadian, moved to a small town named after a train station, and started a new life. Somehow, in spite of our intentions, we’ve had one of the most stressful years of our lives. We’ve gotten sick, dealt with bizarre health issues, been hit with a number of external crises including a sewage backup, a lawsuit, a demolition and renovation project, and two felled trees in our yard—just to name a few. When we ask our friends and neighbors how they keep up, they sigh in defeat and shake their heads. No one, it seems, is keeping up.
Two weeks ago, we bought a new SUV for our family, because the six of us could no longer squeeze into a single sedan. We took our first road trip in it a week later, when we drove across state lines to buy a used drum set for my son. He’d been asking for one for some time so that he could have a kit at both my house and his mom’s house.
Twenty minutes after retrieving the drum set, I pulled into a four-way intersection and got into the first accident of my life. Someone who saw it said there had been ten accidents at that intersection in the past month. “One day,” he told me in a deep Alabama drawl, “I seen three—one right after the other.”
We waited on that man’s porch, the kids drinking juice boxes surrounded by ash trays, while I made phone calls and watched the tow truck haul away our car. Around ten o’clock that night, my wife showed up, and we drove home in the sedan. As I slouched in the passenger seat, the woman I love said to me tenderly, “We’ve got to slow down.”
I protested and defended, telling her all about the boundaries I’d been working on, everything I’d done to pump the brakes. I’d been trying. And yet, here we were. It still wasn’t enough.
“I don’t know how,” I sighed.
Busyness Is a Choice (Sort of)
A couple years after my parents moved us out to that small country town I hated for most of my young life, my mom said something to me. After getting stood up by a friend for the second time in a row because she was “too busy,” my mom declared: “Busyness is a choice.”
And that’s true. But it may be a choice in the way that taking a drink is for an alcoholic. Or in the way that checking your email on vacation is for a work addict. “Compulsion” is a more appropriate word: something that you just can’t help yourself from doing. And once you start, it’s hard to stop.
There is a particularly powerful scene in the movie “Wonder Boys” where Michael Douglas’s character is working on a novel he can’t finish. For years, his agent and publisher think he has writer’s block. One day, though, they discover he has been writing the whole time. In fact, he has pages and pages of material, all kinds of details including long genealogies of horses and other subplots. The novel is grandiose, as substantial as War and Peace, if not longer.
After the climactic scene in the film where the author loses his five-year passion project, watching it literally fly out the window into a nearby lake, a couple of country bumpkins pick him up on the side of the road. One asks him what the book was about, and he cannot answer. “I don’t know,” he says.
“Why were you writing a book when you didn’t know what it was about?”
“I couldn’t stop.”
P.S. If you could relate to any of this, you might appreciate this new book.
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