Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How to Find Stillness in a Culture that Tells you to Do More

Awhile back I read an article from the New Yorker called No Time by Elizabeth Kolbert. The article takes an in-depth look at how Americans use their time, suggesting a growing addiction to busyness.  Americans, it seems, feel the need to use up every single minute of their time, without allowing much space in the day for rest.  And, worse than that, people tend to brag about how busy we are, as if all this frenetic over-scheduling gives us a sense of purpose.  We almost feel ashamed of our leisure time, as if we're not important enough without a giant list of activities on our calenders.    What is going on with Americans, and how do we stop this?  This growing trend in busyness is evident by looking through past Christmas letters and cards:

"Researcher, Ann Burnett, has collected five decades’ worth of holiday letters and found that they’ve come to dwell less and less on the blessings of the season and more and more on how jam-packed the previous year has been. Based on this archive, Burnett has concluded that keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to outschedule them."

How sad.  For the past 50 years, Americans have been trading in their precious time of quiet reflection for an over-stuffed calender.  But filling every minute of our lives with activity is not how we're meant to live.  We need stillness. We need true rest.  And I don't mean mindlessly scrolling through emails or binge-watching the latest season on Netflix (although I do love me some Netflix!), but real restOur minds can't keep up this exhausting pace without losing something--like our health, personal development and spiritual growth.  Kolbert addresses the negative effects of this mental preoccupation:

"A lawyer playing with his kids is technically at leisure, but if all the while he’s checking his phone for texts from the office he may feel that he hasn’t had any time off. Schulte terms this the “mental tape-loop phenomenon,” and she argues that it’s sapping our precious energies, so that we can’t even “decide what to think about, worrying about home stuff at work and work stuff at home.'”

So, even when we have time off, we still feel the need to occupy our brains in an energy-reducing way.  But it gets even worse.  This preoccupation with busyness has a snowball effect, as it's fed by an emphasis on consumerism:

"Instead of quitting early, they [Americans] find new things to need." Europeans will further reduce their working hours and become even more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become such masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours to buy more stuff."

So, the catch-22 is that more the stuff we convince ourselves we need to enjoy our days off, the less actual leisure time we end up getting, since we need to work more in order to buy more. And, in the end, most of this stuff just ends up weighing us down, and keeping us from what truly fulfills.  Another problem with all of this busyness is that our identities become enmeshed with our work lives.  Our sense of purpose is then based on the quantity and type of work we do:

Work may not set us free, but it lends meaning to our days, and without it we’d be lost.

I think there's a false belief in America, that those who are wealthy, have the most leisure time.  If we close our eyes, it's not hard to imagine the stereotypical sunlit stroll through a golf course and luxurious beach vacations.  But this is often not the reality for those who are well off.  Kolbert states that: "the disproportionately compensated have a disproportionate motive to keep on working. (taking a day off when you're rich means losing a TON of money versus just a few bucks for someone who is poor)."

So, what is the way out of this mess?  How do we effectively reclaim our leisure time and get the real rest we need?  I think there are two simple things we can do to help remedy the addiction to doing:

1) Realize that "needing more stuff" is a myth (The old adage that money does not buy happiness is just as true today as ever!)

2) Make an effort to be truly present and schedule white space into your day

There's a simple exercise you can do to assess what really brings you joy. Jot down a list of some of your best memories--the times when you were most happy.  When you are done, look at your list and see how many of those memories involved a lot of expensive "stuff", or whether they were things you could do for very little money.  Now look to see if the time was a fast-paced jam-packed day, or whether time time felt slow.  Very often some of our best memories are times spent with loved ones in very simple ways--going for walks with Grandma or picnics at the lake.  Nothing rushed, nothing extravagant.  No deadlines looming or texts and emails to send.  Just time lived slowly and lived well.  Time cherished with loved ones.

I encourage you to examine the pace and activity level of your life.  Is there a way to reclaim more leisure time and slow the pace down a bit?  Do you agree with Kolbert's article?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!


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