Friday, July 6, 2012

The “Self” Trap: Thoughts on The “Busy” Trap

The “Self” Trap: Thoughts on The “Busy” Trap

Over the last week, Tim Kreider’s essay, “The ‘busy’ trap”, has been all the rage. It was the most emailed article on the New York Times digital outlets, and I have seen multiple links to the essay on that most accurate gauge of what is important in the world, Facebook. The essence of Tim’s message is the age-old adage that no one says they wish they had worked more on their death bed. In other words, slow down, put down the Blackberry (not that it matters, RIM is probably going to go bankrupt with or without you anyway), go visit grandma, hang out with your friends, save otters, etc. Reactions to the essay have been mostly of the heartfelt “Amen!” variety, with, I imagine, vigorous head nods and promises to reassess our sleep-deprived lifestyles and to go visit the National Parks (we really have to get out to Yellowstone, I hear it is simply majestic! Although I have heard terrifying stories of bears chopping people’s heads off, and someone told me there are no showers at campsites?!) By now, you are probably familiar with this pattern in the news world: a story comes out about the work/life balance, diet, or exercise, and we vigorously discuss it and pay lip service to living in greater harmony before reverting back to our old routine.

 Just so you know, I do not care to discuss the work/life balance here; it is totally up to you what you do with your life. If you want to make a gazillion dollars and buy your own island, knock yourself out. Don’t buy the Maldives though – it is disappearing into the ocean. Actually, at this rate, most islands are probably going to disappear into the ocean. I would probably wait until California splits off and buy low in the resulting panic. On the other hand, if you want to quit your job and go live on a commune in Idaho, more power to you. All I care about is that you reflect on your existence once in a while and affirm that you are happy with the choices you are making.

Figure 1 - Russell Westbrook is happy with his fashion choices now, but he is going to regret them in a couple of years.

With that said, I do have a bone to pick with this article. I say this because Tim’s essay indirectly touches on a problem with our popular culture: it is individualistic to the point of being selfish. The common perception goes something like this: You turn eighteen. You leave your parents’ house. You start working the soil. You go to college. You go West. You teach English in Korea. You fall into the heart of the “busy” trap that is Manhattan. You sell all your possessions and move to Portland. Throughout it all, you go it alone, making and losing friends, and falling in and out of love. It is the American story; it is what separates us from those weak-spirited Europeans who live with their parents until marriage, then move out to tiny Fiats and socialized medicine.

Figure 2 - FALSE.   

So what is missing from this American story? Well, how about family – you know, the people who brought you into this world? The role of family in our lives according to the common narrative is like sex on TV: completely unreflective of reality. In this common narrative, you visit your folks once a year, maybe Thanksgiving, maybe Christmas. You call your Mother once in a while. Notice that I refer to “popular culture” and “the common narrative”, and not “us” because in reality, most people’s lives are tightly interwoven with their families. They get a “loan” from their parents for a down payment on a house; they drop the kids off at Grandma’s for a weekend; they care for their elderly parents.
With that family relationship comes a set of obligations and responsibilities. You must make your own way, but you also have to realize that you carry the weight and traditions of your past with you….

Tim Kreider: “Excuse me, but what does this have to do with my essay? I was just trying to point out that our over-committed lifestyle is largely self-imposed. Most of the things that most of us do are just not that important at the end of day, you know? Also, I kind of dig Russell Westbrook’s style, so lay off.”

You are right, Tim. Let’s get to the point.

First, few people I know have the luxury of living for themselves. Whether a factor of money, time, or having loved ones close by, most of us choose (or cannot avoid) to have our parents, children, and siblings be a big part of our lives, and that tends to really eat away at the idle time.

Figure 3 - It must have really sucked to live in the Middle Ages.

My second point deals more directly with Tim’s underlying theme - ultimately, he, like everyone else, is looking for meaning and trying to find his place in the universe. And he is spot on when he says that “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness”. Too often, we put our heads down and take our turns at the hamster wheel without even considering that you may not have to be in the cage in the first place. But a reactionary move to live without responsibility and expectations may leave you floating in a nihilistic vacuum, with nothing to measure your life against. I would suggest that a healthy amount of family participation and tradition can serve as an anchor that will provide a safety line in your lifelong search for whatever it is that makes you tick.


  1. Great post! I've been reading "A Guide to the Good Life" recently, and it has a lot of advice for how to live a more meaningful life:

    I think it's something you might enjoy. Maybe it will help you finally discover that what will make your life meaningful is to leave your parents’ house, start working the soil, and move to Korea to teach English.

  2. Thanks, I will check out the book. Stoicism is so in right now.