Recently, I had the great pleasure of visiting a Buddhist monastery to do a walking meditation on a luminous summer morning. It was a beautiful experience but what struck me afterward was how quickly even many of those bent on being here now reached for their cell phones to check their text messages or play Angry Birds. As charmingly ironic as this is, it is also a perfect manifestation of what most ails us. We just can’t stop working/amusing ourselves to death.
Not too long after my encounter with the texting Buddhists, I came upon an illustrative article in the Travel section of the New York Times entitled “Call Waiting: ‘It’s Me, Vacation’: Can’t Let Go? Eight Rules for Getting the Most Out of Your Time Off” by Matt Richtel. Richtel’s article starts with the story of a failed vacation that left him “exhausted, defeated, and irritable” rather than refreshed and at peace. He then turns to the wisdom of neuroscientists, behavior experts, and business executives to learn that “letting go” is something you have to “practice on a daily basis.”
What is the harried vacationing worker to do? Well, it seems, the practical answers are simple things like turning off your phone before bedtime, leaving your context at home, and generally pulling your stressed head out of your posterior. Indeed, as Richtel reminds the reader, you’re just not that important and you will re-enter the work world to be greeted by a tidal wave of mostly meaningless spam.
In that same edition of the Times, the front-page essay in the Sunday Review was part of the paper of record’s series on anxiety. The fact that there is a series on “anxiety” is a significant social commentary in and of itself, but the featured essay “The ‘Busy Trap’” by Tim Kreider pretty much hits the nail on the head. He points out that we are “addicted to busyness” because we “dread” what we “might have to face in its absence.” More specifically Kreider notes that:
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. I once knew a woman who interned at a magazine where she wasn’t allowed to take lunch hours out, lest she be urgently needed for some reason. This was an entertainment magazine whose raison d’être was obviated when “menu” buttons appeared on remotes, so it’s hard to see this pretense of indispensability as anything other than a form of institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
Kreider goes on to posit the heretical idea that idleness rather than the gospel of efficiency is the mother of inspiration and invention. He then ponders the utopian notion that we should imagine a world without “work” as we know it and ends by suggesting that he won’t regret not working harder on his deathbed because “life is too short to be busy.” Puritan work ethic be damned. Good for him.
A few days after I read this installment in the New York Times investigation of our collective anxiety I ran into another friend who confessed that he couldn’t imagine retirement because he feared becoming “diffuse.” And, sadly, this is not an uncommon sentiment even here in the endless summer of San Diego. I know people who go into the office to “maintain structure” even when they aren’t getting paid and others who take their laptops with them on exotic trips to “kill the dead time.” And if we want to take Kreider’s musings on busyness further, one needs to examine the very notion of “vacation” as a social construct that conceals our collective misery, a kind of lightening flash that exposes the greater darkness of our lives. If we really lived and worked meaningfully we wouldn’t be longing for the weekend or dreaming of our summer escapes.
Perhaps the hidden truth is that we have become our own worst enemies by incorporating a vapid time-management ideology into our daily lives and sacrificing all that cannot be quantified and measured on the altar of efficiency, productivity, and the living death of our air conditioned nightmares. We have become slave masters to ourselves.
As Henry David Thoreau observed over a century ago:
Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.
And today most of our political and cultural leaders and their corporate masters have nothing to offer us but a politics that preaches the gospel of the market in one form or another. They sing the praises of a system that has put the earth in jeopardy of environmental catastrophe and fostered great national and global inequality in the service of enriching the few.
Thus we are left to our own devices.
But why must we “start digging our graves as soon as we are born,” as the great old courage teacher puts it? Why not just stop running? Why not treat ourselves and each other more tenderly? As Thich Nhat Hanh advises, “This may be a solution to today’s problems—reducing the production of useless goods, sharing work with those who have none, and living simply and happily.” This is the real work–what is to be done.
Note: Under the Perfect sun will be on hiatus while I attend to very important business at an undisclosed location in the wilderness. See you in August dear reader.