Reframing and Resisting ‘Busy’

“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to let the moment last.” – Simon and Garfunkel, 59th Street Bridge Song

I believe that our words frame our thinking/feeling (I can’t separate these two), our thinking/feeling frames our behavior, and our behavior frames how our society operates. I believe that if I want a compassionate society, which I do, then I need to seriously and critically (but gently) look inwards at myself and my day-to-day behavior and thoughts/feelings.

I decided that I didn’t want to frame my life as ‘busy’ a few years back. My life is objectively ‘busy’ – I have two kids, a full-time job managing a bustling academic department at our local college, and there is always lots going on. There have been many articles written about the reality of this modern day working-parent life, and objectively, life has gotten busier – with technology most of us continue working on the evenings and weekends, people are commuting longer distances, and we objectively have less time for leisure activities. That is a reality that so many of us are living with.
However, I don’t want this to be the dominant story that frames my life. It is crystal clear to me that feeling busy and stressed has negative impact for myself, my family and friends, the people I support at my work, and society at large. The bottom line for me, is that when I am busy and stressed, I am not present, not listening and not able to act compassionately to others in my life. There is a ‘Good Samaritan’ psychology experiment that I read about first in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘The Tipping Point’ (p.165), and I think about a lot. This study is also referred to in a beautiful and insightful Ted Talk by Daniel Goleman entitled ‘Why Aren’t We More Compassionate?’.

The experiment is that seminary students (studying to be Christian ministers) are preparing to go to a class to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan. They set up an actor who is lying on the ground bleeding, and they are studying whether or not the seminary student stops to help the bleeding person, and what factors influence their behavior. They are on their way to give a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan! What they find out is that generally, 63% stop to help (which feels very disappointing). But the biggest influence on behavior change is when they tell the students that they are late. Once they know they are late, they become stressed (feel busy), and then only 10 percent stop to help! The words of ‘Oh, you’re late’ turn someone who would normally be a compassionate person into someone who is so indifferent to suffering that they literally step over a bleeding person! This behavior change could happen to any of us, and I believe does happen to us every day when we rush around.

This study illuminated my own unconscious behavior, rushing around when I’m stressed, not being there for others because I’m caught up in my own swirling mind. I don’t want to wake up in the morning panicked by the hundred and one things that I need to do and the long and ever growing to-do list that awaits me. I have been trying to consciously resist this frame, by using mindfulness to pull myself out of the panic and into the present moment.

As well as mindfulness, I’ve been paying attention to my words, and I decided consciously not to respond to the question ‘how are you’ by saying ‘I am busy’. I made this decision because I felt that, even though I am busy, there are so many other more positive and still very truthful answers to the question. How are you? I am good. I am trying to be present in my life. I am inspired by our students. I am inspired by my faculty. I am loving the opportunities I have for learning in my job. I am excited by the challenges that are in front of me. I am happily loving my kids, even though they drive me a little crazy. I am thankful for my friendships. I am intentionally finding time to play music in my life. There are so many possible responses to the question.

However, this has been an interesting experiment indeed. I have found that often, when I don’t respond that ‘I am busy’, many people want to respond this way for me. This especially happens at my workplace. I run into people I know all the time in the hallways of our college, who happily ask how I am. When I respond with one of my spontaneous positive answers (like the examples above), they will reply ‘But you must be really busy.” At first, this took me off guard and I didn’t want to say ‘well, I’m actually doing an experiment to not frame my life in that way so I won’t say I’m busy’, so I would say something like ‘Well, yes, we’re all busy, BUT…’ and then I would try to reframe with another statement. Sometimes the person would repeat again ‘but you must be SO busy’, clearly not getting the message, and we would continue this dance of words and conversation.

What is this about? Is this just that ‘being busy’ is so ingrained in our society, that its all we have to talk about? Is this a strange way to compliment me, telling me that I am important because I’m busy? Is ‘busy’ valued over all else, because it implicitly signals that I am being ‘productive’ instead of idle, contributing to our capitalist society’s bottom line? What would our society look like if we weren’t busy and racing around so much? These questions may be for another future blog post. But in the meantime, I don’t want to feel like a rat on a rat race. I don’t want to lose my compassionate nature that is core to all of us. So I will keep trying to reframe busy.