In our always “on” culture, which only is amplified by being a parent, many of us are seeking quiet, slow, space, down time, calm, etc. So much of what I read these days is focused on finding the antidote to busy. And I am on board. Ever since giving up my quest for perfection around the start of 2017, I’ve been conscious to put less on my proverbial plate each day. My goal is always to create reasonable, manageable daily to do lists, so as not to leave myself disappointed at the day’s end. I’ve been trying to take the “less is more” approach to life.
But then I noticed something the other day: I had what could be described as a quiet day–a day with not too much planned, a couple of goals that I needed/wanted to hit, but not a lot of concrete necessities. Yet, when I got to the end of that day, my head was spinning. I felt exhausted, out of sorts, and completely untied. It felt like the most chaotic day I had experienced in a long time, and yet, nothing had really happened.
The key here is ultimately that the day felt that way to me–this is based on perception, but when we are talking about things like calm versus chaos, productive versus peaceful, and so on, perception is really all we have to go on. It wasn’t actually a chaotic day, and yet I was left reeling.
I am also aware that the day might have felt so chaotic because I had not structured all of the open space in it very well. I had no carefully made plan for the few things I had to do. And this girl without a plan is like a fish on a bicycle: useless, fumbling, and just not right.
Still, that day got me thinking that there is some kind fine line between quiet and chaos, and, as with all of life, we are left needing to create the balance. My guess is that self-help gurus, Buddhists, and other contemplatives would argue that we simply need to learn to be more comfortable with the quiet–that if I had better embraced the quiet, I wouldn’t have been left feeling so unhinged by it. I’m betting they’d say my reaction to all the “down time” is an outcome (a consequence) of our always “on” culture and my own tendency toward wanting every moment to be productive. Indeed a large part of my discomfort at the the end of that day was caused by my fretting over the fact that nothing had happened, meaning nothing had been accomplished. I am also aware of my own need to redefine that “nothing” (for example, I went to a small gathering of colleagues on campus to send off one of our (many) departing Deans. I count this as “nothing,” and yet I know I would be better off viewing it as an important and necessary part of work, of being a part of that community). But all of this is part of balance: It’s easy to blame culture for creating this feeling of always needing to be on and busy (it’s especially easy for a monastic to place that blame), but ultimately culture constructs us as much as we construct it (or try to), and we all need to live within the reality and constraints of that. The reality is that we all need and want to be/feel productive. We all need to have moments of busyness. I recently heard poet Marie Howe, in her interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, say that busyness can be the prayer if we allow it to (I’m paraphrasing). For me that is the balance: busyness as prayer.