Hi, how are you?
It’s the cookie cutter, socially appropriate greeting. I say it every time I answer the phone…greet a friend….an acquaintance at work….a waitress at the local diner.
And it has a cookie cutter, socially appropriate answer.
In fact, the person we are addressing could have just lost her job or had a fretful night worrying about a wayward child – but the answer will be the same.
Until lately, that is. We still greet others with, “Hi, how are you?” But as often as not these days, the single word answer isn’t “Fine,” it’s “Busy.” or, “Just busy!” accompanied by a deep sigh, and sometimes a roll of the eyes.
And “busy” doesn’t do much to pave the way for conversation to follow.
“Busy” says, “I’m exhausted.”
“I don’t have time to talk to you.”
“My life is so full of important commitments I can’t begin to list them all.”
“You just wouldn’t relate.”
“Busy” stops conversation dead in its tracks.
Indeed, we are busy these days, although it makes no logical sense. My appliances are labeled “high efficiency.” I pay bills automatically and do the banking online. The dry cleaning gets picked up at the door. Communication with friends is accomplished en masse via Facebook. I can watch an hour of TV in 42 minutes, thanks to DVR.
So….why so busy?
Well, I have a theory or two.
Keeping busy is a family value where I come from. To this day, my mom proclaims, “I can’t stand idleness!” as she folds towels, catches up on politics, examines her latest painting, or heads outside to tend her flowers.
At a dinner meeting in Philadelphia last spring, I sat next to an eighty year old named Dan who worked for years as a comedy writer. (Writing for Cheers was one of his better known projects.) Today, he is active – busy – in the national campaign for autism awareness. Dustin Hoffman turned to Dan for help as he prepared for his role in Rainman. Dan shared that keeping busy keeps him relevant, even in his ninth decade of life. And he is convinced that being irrelevant is what makes a person old. Dan’s calendar is fully booked.
Dan would say,and my mom would agree, that keeping busy is like taking a good swim in the fountain of youth.
There is a dangerous edge to all this busy-ness. Being busy for its own sake can signal a preoccupation with the unimportant stuff of life. We keep busy shuffling clutter from one countertop to the next, but the house is never clean. We tend imaginary farms as if our very lives depended on it, but can’t remember the last time we cooked a great dinner from fresh ingredients. We check Facebook hourly, in case somebody had something to say, but are too busy to catch a movie or plan lunch with a co-worker who just might become a new friend. We’d rather watch The Biggest Loser than spend an hour working out.
Life clutter crowds out life quality before we know it.
Not intentionally, of course. It’s just that…well, we’re busy!
For me it’s a slippery slope from keeping busy in a healthy way to being overcommitted and overwhelmed. My friend Amy Oscar writes, “Your overwhelm is your teacher,” but the lessons of my “overwhelm” are the lessons learn slowly. Indeed, I forget them entirely, from time to time.
Yes I can credit (or blame) family values for those overwhelmed moments, but I grew up in the days when the message to women was empowering and clear: You can do it. You can do it all. You can do it all at once. You can do it all at once and do it all well.
And, in fact, I did it all, very well, all at once. My house was clean. My children well dressed and active in dance, scouts, ski club, volleyball, horseback riding, music lessons. My professional evaluations were stellar and colleagues respected my views. I chaired committees at church, served as a scout leader, led a professional organization, picked up a couple of graduate degrees, and regularly donated blood.
I like to think that today I am wiser than the younger version of myself. That I set worthwhile goals and meaningful priorities instead of just trying to do it all. That I have figured out how to live my life in balance. That I recognize my “overwhelm” is, more often than not, the result of my own choices.
Some days I do okay.
But then I get busy.