Sean Moncrieff: ‘Are you busy? I seriously hope not’
Flat to the mat. Out the door. Busyness is a badge of honour – can I hand mine back?
My life, your life, is being eaten up by often-meaningless activity
In one of those small-talk situations, a fella says to me: are you flat to the mat?
I was puzzled as this sounded like some sort of martial arts reference, and – this may surprise you – I’m not routinely taken to be a practitioner of karate. Indeed, such was my obvious confusion that he had to rephrase the question to what he actually meant: are you busy?
Ah, there it was. The B-word. Rather like “how are you?” or “how’s she cutting?”, “are you busy?” is one of those almost meaningless conversation-openers. But there is a difference: when someone asks how you are, most of the time they would be horrified to hear an actual answer to that question, whereas “are you busy?” does invite a degree of specificity. They want to hear about the busyness. They want to hear how much busyness you have to deal with and what sort of busyness it is. Most of all, they want to hear that you have busyness in your life.
It always struck me as one of those phrases that grew in popularity during the Celtic Tiger, where being busy – in fact, being slightly overwhelmed with all the work you have to do – is implicitly taken to be a good thing. A standard answer to the B-question is “oh, we’re out the door”. Whatever that means.
I never know how to answer the question. It makes me uncomfortable. Not that I’m not busy. Most of the time I’m out the door. But I routinely question whether being busy is a good thing. A lot of the time I don’t want to be busy.
There. I said it.
For me, and I suspect for most people, work busyness is a known quantity. It can vary from day to day or month to month or season to season. Sometimes the unexpected happens, but in most work situations you want to avoid that and usually do.
As soon as you get a chance to think, one of the first things you may realise is how little you get the chance to think
It’s family busyness that is more difficult to predict. Kids get ill or get notions or want to do something or have to be given money or driven somewhere. There are arguments and drama and people with various plans, so every day there’s an information stream of who is doing what and where and with whom. It’s pretty busy. And it’s often why, for a parent who also works outside the home, what’s left of their personal life is squeezed in around the edges. Plans to see friends have to be made months in advance. They have to accept that they may never get to the gym again or learn to play the banjo. As individuals, they shrink a little under the daily pounding of all this busyness.
There’s one nice thing about the sit-on-your-ass sun holiday. You get a chance to read (another thing busyness won’t let you do), but, more importantly, you get a chance to think: about the shape of your life, your ideas, what you still hope for.
And as soon as you get a chance to think, one of the first things you may realise is how little you get the chance to think. Real life won’t let you. Be it work or family, you’re pushed from one problem to be solved to the next; a series of short-term gains that often don’t feel like they add up to anything greater.
Here’s the answer I really want to give: yes, I’m busy, but I wish I wasn’t. Or I wish I were less busy. My life, your life, is being eaten up by often-meaningless activity. No one ever put on their headstone: I wish I’d gone to more meetings.
But people would think I was bonkers if I said that. So, yes, yes. I’m out the door. Hope you are too.