Taming the Busy Trap

I’m emerging from one of the busiest seasons of my life.

My wedding and a move from Michigan to Wyoming have filled my summer with enough checklists and tasks to keep me running around until one in the morning, until I finally put myself to bed, the set of tomorrow’s tasks stuttering in my ear while I try to sleep.

I’ve been asked numerous times how I’ve held up under the stress. How I deal with feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and stretched too thin.

And, to be honest, I’ve had to say “Well, it doesn’t feel too bad, actually. I’m doing fine.”

I have felt fine. I’ve been sleeping regularly, and haven’t resorted to a diet of coffee and junk food. Maybe my seeming lack of stress is due to the fact that I got to spread these tasks over my thirteen-month engagement.

Maybe I’ve been channeling some inner peace that makes this series of beginnings and ends more tolerable, serene, easy to handle.

Or, perhaps I’m not as stressed as people think I should be because, in the regular routine of my life, planning this life transition has felt like a vacation. Like a pause in the midst of a usually numbing busyness, one that turns every hour into a blank slate, waiting for tasks to fill it.

Tim Krieder recently wrote about the American pandemic of the busy trap, the current pace that each of us sprints at, in one way or another.

It’s an easy accusation to make if you are in some spot of leisure, as Krieder is, but his argument is pointed at those of us who make ourselves busy out of a disruption in our inner life, not out of actual necessity.

“(People) are busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety,” Krieder writes, “because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

The busyness that Krieder describes seems like a nasty cousin of acedia. It pushes us to over-schedule, to put off face-to-face meetings with others, to assume that getting things done quickly means bearing fruit.

It’s production and consumerism, and it’s a sickness of my soul that has haunted me since I was a girl, trying to busy my life so that the poison of my home life would lose some of its edge.

For me, it’s always been the balancing of tasks: If I could balance both teaching and writing, if I could pour my life into something with a direct output, it would not only quiet my own loneliness, but also buffer me against all my daily failings.

If I could see my time being spent virtuously at some task, it would excuse me for any other inattention, any involuntary hurt I caused someone else.

In other words, if I could justify my frenzied actions, if I saw them doing good in some way, meaning by doing good, I would be forgiven for doing any wrong. It would mean that, no matter how much I failed to love, I would still be worthy of love myself.

The issue of busyness is layered with questions of class, race, and economic possibility. Exhaustion, according to Krieder, is what strikes poorer people, not complaints about too many emails to answer.

Krieder’s assertion is, albeit indirectly, a spiritual one. It looks at the consequences of busyness in terms of its effects on our relationships, our emotional terrain, and our ease in the world.

And it forces us—forces me—to tell the truth about what purpose our tasks serve, and what broken ends we seek in them.

If busyness is an addiction, then it feeds some desire that has been twisted and bent by wrongdoing. And, like anything else, that desire needs rehabilitation, a house of healing to set it aright.

My husband’s parents live in eastern Michigan. Their freezers are full of homegrown spinach and wild turkey, and their backyard is hedged with forest. They spend evenings playing cards and watching old movies, their country home free of both internet and cell phones.

We spent a weekend with Jeremy’s parents a few weeks before the wedding, and it was rejuvenating in the way we both needed. We read books; I crocheted; and we simply sat with one another, our conversations both rich and simple, our meals long and lingering.

On our way home, Jeremy and I both asked each other, “How can we practice that kind of life?”

I’m not proposing that Jeremy’s parents live in an idyllic paradise. Jeremy’s parents choose their connections carefully, and their lives are both busy and demanding because they invest in the people they love, and the countryside that they call home, in ways that cultivate respect and love.

In order to answer the spiritual question of my over-busied life, I need to cultivate love and respect in the ways that help me see myself more simply. Ways that help me see others more clearly. Ways that refashion the purposes my tasks take on, not to guarantee myself love—but to give it to others.

To face love for what it is—free and holy and good—and to practice living in ways that keep us turning to love, over and over and over again.

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  • Welcome back! Your second to last paragraph – ohhhh yes. I so relate the orientation of tasks around trying to get myself love and approval and a sense of being okay. I think more focus on giving something of value to others would actually result in a clearer sense of what to say no to and make room for good yeses. At the Glen, Scott Cairns talked about “small ambitions” and I’ve been thinking about that a lot. That in many ways my writing life has been full of small ambitions, which involve a thousand yeses to things I don’t actually care about because I want to be “good” and approved of. Which has led (in part) to my current state of burnout. Funny to think saying no to people could create more and better opportunities to give real love elsewhere.

  • What insightful, challenging thoughts. Thank you, Allison!

    Especially resonant: “if I could justify my frenzied actions, if I saw them doing good in some way, meaning by doing good, I would be forgiven for doing any wrong. It would mean that, no matter how much I failed to love, I would still be worthy of love myself.” I’m glad to not be the only one; hopeful that I can change!

  • Wonderful reflection