Why our busy nation needs to chill out
In her 1929 classic, A Room of One’s Own, author Virginia Woolf wrote: “It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” A lovely thought, but who has time to be idle anymore? These days, we’re so busy living in multiple moments—cell phone in one hand, BlackBerry in the other—that we never find time to just focus on the moment, much less indulge in leisure. In these pages, we celebrate the art of taking a break from the American go-go way of life, and finding a sanctuary in which to reflect and recharge. So, take a breath, turn the page, and prepare to exhale.—The Editors
Lately, I’ve been approaching bedtime the way, I assume, marathoners approach the finish line, which is to say, exhausted and in need of a nourishing IV. Buoyed by the frenetic pace of what philosophy professor Al Gini has called “the Everydayathon” of modern life, I leapfrog from errand to errand, desperate to get my unwieldy to-do list under control. No longer do I have time in my overbooked life for the kind of roomy, deep-focus activities that used to sustain me. The bookcase behind my bed is a shrine to my aborted attempts at reading novels, my e-mail inbox a painful reminder of the nurturing friendships I’ve let drift away. I even have a slow cooker I’ve never used.
Indeed, many people these days seem to suffer from what comedian Ellen DeGeneres has termed TBS, or Too-Busy Syndrome. We speed date, guzzle Red Bull, race to yoga, schedule Cesareans, and, in the ultimate catch-22, engage in faux-leisure activities such as scrapbooking, which requires us to pack our schedules ever more tightly in order to glean experiences worthy of scrapbooking. Quips DeGeneres: “It’s enough to make you miss Mayberry, isn’t it?”
It’s a joke, but an apt one. Many Americans, worn out by what former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins calls “this culture’s mad theology of speed,” have started to cast their minds back to the rural values of simplicity associated with small towns like Mayberry, the famously “easy and slow” setting of The Andy Griffith Show. In fact, four months before the 2004 presidential election, renowned Republican pollster Frank Luntz revealed that lack of free time was the biggest concern among swing voters. Not the economy. Not health care. Not even the war in Iraq.
“The number one thing that matters to them is that they don’t have the time that they want for their job, for their kids, for their spouse, for themselves, for their friends,” Luntz said on NOW with Bill Moyers (July 2, 2004). “The issue of time matters to them more than anything else in life.”
A few days after President George W. Bush cinched his reelection, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that Bush’s presidency “rushes backward” to “19th-century family values,” representing an age “more premodern than postmodern” (Nov. 7, 2004). As opposed to John F. Kennedy’s presidency, she continued, which opened up “a thrilling world of possibilities and modernity,” the Bush administration “courts primitivism” and “cocoon[s] in a scary, paranoid, regressive reality.”
All true. And yet, perhaps a retreat from modernity and a return, however regressive, to a simpler time is exactly the point for many overworked, overscheduled, and exhausted Americans. After all, Americans are busier now than they’ve ever been. We work more and vacation less than any other industrialized nation (even Japan, which has a word, kashori, that roughly translates as “death from overwork”). Global competition, corporate downsizing, and a shaky economy have demanded that we step up our productivity. And, in the ultimate bait and switch, supposed labor-saving devices like computers, cell phones, and BlackBerrys have instead enslaved us, forcing us to be “on” 24/7 and pushing us to accomplish tasks faster and faster.
“Technology,” observes Robert Kamm, author of The Superman Syndrome, “is forcing Americans to live at speed, not at depth.”
Seen in this light, the 2004 election may be not so much a mandate on George W. Bush’s presidency, as many observers have claimed, but on George W. Bush’s uncomplicated aesthetic—the cowboy who leisurely clears brush, the “What, me worry?” Alfred E. Neuman figure who’s easygoing and mellow, the regular guy you could easily imagine at a NASCAR event (as opposed to John Kerry, whom the Republicans knew they’d beat, Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows recently said, when they heard him utter, Shakespeare-like, “Who among us does not enjoy NASCAR?”).
No matter that Bush’s loping aesthetic masks a rigid, unthinking mind-set and that he doesn’t advocate policies (a minimum-wage increase, for example) that might actually help the masses breathe a bit easier. As with Ronald Reagan, the original “cowboy president”—who successfully paved over a divorce, numerous Hollywood ties (including a close friendship with Frank Sinatra), and a seriously dysfunctional family life by spending, all told, nearly a year of his two-term presidency at his Santa Barbara ranch chopping wood, riding horses with wife Nancy, and, (natch) clearing brush—it’s apparently only the appearance of simplicity that counts.
In truth, we’ve always been suckers for the promise of a simpler life. Take the popular new reality television show Amish in the City. In a witty analysis in The Washington Monthly (Oct. 2004), Sasha Issenberg claims that we have long romanticized the Amish for their plain ways.
“In living Amish culture, [we] see both the purity of a simpler past and a promise of a more virtuous present,” Issenberg writes. “Americans’ lionization of the Amish is part of a broader tradition—the reactionary anti-urban, anti-consumerist vein in our national life that had its roots among America’s first Puritan settlers and has lasted well into the modern age in communities ranging from the crunchy back-to-the-land hippies of the 1960s to the right-wing survivalists of today.”
The busier we get, it seems, the more we make a fetish of the simple life. Like Depression-era audiences who lapped up Busby Berkeley’s lavishly produced, exorbitant musicals, we’ll make do with fantasy if we can’t attain the reality.
We weren’t always so lost. Aristotle’s famous view that “we work in order to have leisure” held up well into the 20th century, according to Ben Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa. For more than a century prior to the 1930s, American workers successfully lobbied for higher wages and shorter hours, most notably the eight-hour workday and five-day workweek, and there was a widespread expectation that leisure would increasingly come to dominate our lives.
Back then, Hunnicutt says, “the American Dream consisted of two things: more wealth and more time to live.” And it wasn’t just put-upon workers who defined progress as having more leisure time. “Liberation capitalists” like W.K. Kellogg and Lord Leverhulme (one of the Lever Brothers) viewed the coming age of leisure as the finest possible accomplishment of industrial capitalism. Kellogg even put his money where his mouth was and, in 1930, instituted a six-hour workday in his Battle Creek, Michigan, cereal factories. The result? Not surprisingly, workers spent more time with their kids and in their communities, strengthening both family and civic ties.
So why didn’t this utopian experiment spread across the country? The answer is complicated, Hunnicutt says, but one factor is consumerism and the birth of marketing in the 1920s. “There was a great deal of pessimism in the 1920s that the economy was not going to grow anymore because people had all they needed. Then this new view comes along that it’s possible to convince people to buy things they never needed before,” he explains.
That idea of scarcity, that there is never going to be enough, many observers agree, created our desire to “have it all” and is a big reason why we feel so busy today. “We’re taught from birth that there’s always more to have, more to need,” Hunnicutt says. “We’ve created a Frankenstein, a monster that requires us to work continually.”
Much was made of the importance of moral values in the 2004 election, and yet, seen through the prism of our “Frankenstein” culture of busyness, perhaps time (or lack thereof) is the ultimate moral issue. That’s one of the ideas behind Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org), a nonpartisan national campaign that aims to lobby Congress with a multipronged legislative agenda that includes, among other things, capping mandatory overtime and guaranteeing at least three weeks annual paid vacation and one week paid sick leave.
“Time is a family value,” observes national coordinator John de Graaf. “Americans talk a lot about family values these days but often leave [that] one out.”
Although he knows getting the initiatives passed will be an uphill battle, de Graaf remains optimistic. Time, he observes, is an overarching issue that cuts across ideological lines and draws interest from a diverse mix of people. At Take Back Your Time’s first annual conference last year, de Graaf points out, the participants included corporate executives, representatives from the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, evangelicals, and even Wiccans.
“People got along great,” de Graaf says. “They really sense that this issue is a place where people can come together and where we all suffer from what exists out there.”
Another optimistic trend in the time wars is the burgeoning worldwide Slow movement, which self-described “rehabilitated speedaholic” Carl Honore vividly tracks in his recent book In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed (Harper-SanFrancisco, 2004). Neither a preindustrial Luddite retreat nor a mandate to operate at a snail’s pace, as it is commonly misperceived, the Slow philosophy, Honore says, is all about “balance.” “Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for,” he writes. “Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto—the right speed.”
Both Honore and de Graaf look to Europe for inspiration when it comes to how to deal with our time poverty. And, in spite of a handful of recent incidents in which multinational companies essentially blackmailed their European employees into working extra hours, neither thinks Europe will start taking its cues from the United States, as was widely hinted at in the American press. De Graaf believes the almost gleeful media coverage of the incidents was aimed at subduing American workers.
“I think there’s some understanding that there’s an incipient and growing movement for more time here, and I think the message behind these articles is, ‘See, there’s not really an alternative, so shut up and work overtime,’“ de Graaf says.
Of course, no one says the revolution can’t begin at home. There are a number of things we can do as individuals to carve out a sanctuary from our busy lives:
Embrace solitude. “Loneliness is the poverty of self,” poet May Sarton declared. “Solitude is the richness of self.” It is only in those quiet, empty moments of repose, when we are finally, blissfully alone, that we can daydream, stare out a window, talk to ourselves, or engage in random thoughts and the luxury of being bored.
Cultivate your inner Dilbert. Use all of your vacation and sick time (even if you’re not sick). Overall, American workers gave up $21 billion last year in unused vacation time. Look out for yourself, because your company won’t do it for you.
Focus on the moment. Grate a radish, rub your dog’s belly, or simply savor that first glorious sip of morning espresso, and you will understand what novelist Henry Miller meant when he said, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
Cancel your plans with someone. He or she will love you for it.
Reconsider your “dream job.” Leisure professor Ben Hunnicutt says we have unreal expectations about fulfilling our creative urges and realizing our humanity and changing the world through our jobs. “I see very little hope for a reevaluation of leisure until our expectation that the American Dream is fulfilled by a job that is rewarding, has a good salary, and so on, begins to change,” Hunnicutt says.
Engage in proactive television watching. Television, many experts say, is a big reason we feel crunched for time. We park ourselves on the couch intending to watch only one, maybe two, shows, and hours later, we’re still there. But the experience of watching, in one sitting, entire seasons of television programs now available on DVD—The Office, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City—is one that I’ve found requires and rewards deep focus.
Learn to say no. Be mercenary about your engagements.
Reject e-mail’s Pavlovian ping. Train people to expect a response an hour, a day, or even a full week after they e-mail you.
When all else fails, lie. White lies are sometimes the only way to control your life. Use as needed.
Grating a radish or e-mailing someone a week late may not exactly seem revolutionary. And yet, making our nation’s collective fantasy of slowing down a reality could ultimately save us. As Mark Slouka writes in Harper’s Magazine (Nov. 2004), “Idleness is not just a psychological necessity. . . . It constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space . . . necessary to . . . democracy . . . by allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it.”
In the wake of yet another bitterly divisive election season, we remain a nation in search of a common bond. Our last collective pause, it seems, was after 9/11. Yet, instead of taking the time and space to reclaim an inner life, we all too willingly accepted the president’s advice that the most patriotic thing to do was head to the mall and buy stuff. Perhaps it’s too much to hope for, but taking on the modern culture of busyness may be one way to bridge our ideological divide. Lack of free time, after all, is an everyday civic issue that affects us all. Busyness remains our national theology, but if we slow down and allow ourselves to just be, we may start to heal.
As the monk Thomas Merton said, “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. . . . Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”