The small kid in the bunny suit was deeply engrossed in an incessantly beeping tablet game when her mother asked her to please pass the big box of Cheerios to the cashier.
I was standing behind their cart, with The National ENQUIRER which was absorbing all my attention, until I heard the little girl reply in the kind of even tone usually associated with prime-time television news anchors, “I can’t help, Mom. Can’t you see I’m very busy?”
The mother and I made spontaneous eye contact. She automatically did the shoulder shrug communicating; “Kids these days, huh?” and I smiled and nodded, silently responding, “Just imagine!”
But I also made a resolution: I’m going to banish the expression “I’m very busy” from my vocabulary.
I’m done with saying “I’m busy.” Who isn’t busy?
Clearly the six-year-old in a bunny suit feels she can claim that her schedule doesn’t allow her to assist in the quotidian duties associated with childcare and housework.
I’m taking that kid-in-the-shopping-cart moment as a sign that we’ve gone too far in terms of using “I’m very busy” as an excuse for everything, ever.
In America, when somebody asks us “How are you?” we yell, as if in a chorus “Busy! I’m so busy, you wouldn’t believe it. I’m too busy to talk to you, for example.”
Nobody even says “Fine. You?” anymore, because of how busy everybody is. They’re already down the street by the time you mouth the words.
Somewhere in the early ‘80s, America decided that the opposite of the word “occupied” wasn’t “relaxed” but “vacant” --as if time were space. Maybe that’s because people started using day-planners to map out their hours and felt a need to fill each corner with the activity-equivalent of knick-knacks in order to appear to have a life with no empty spaces.
We were encouraged to manage our time instead of enjoy it. We organized time into productive units, checking off lists of tasks accomplished and goals met as if we had to prove ourselves to a Cosmic Parking Lot Attendant who would validate our ticket.
Not only was time like space, time was money: we become increasingly complicit in the idea the most important people had the least time to spend on the trivial matters of ordinary life.
We made ourselves feel significant by believing that the busier we became, the more significant we were; the longer our to-do lists were, the more in-demand we were; the more exhausted we are, the more virtuous we must be-- right?
When was the last time, when you asked anybody what he or she were doing, was the answer “Not much,” or even “Nothing”? That would seem blasphemous, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t you get suspicious? Who’s up to nothing?
You would immediately start to think that person doing nothing is up to something. The only people who say “Nothing” when asked what they’re up to are mastermind criminals, international spies and serial killers. Wouldn’t you be tempted to call the FBI to look for duct-taped bodies in the basement or enriched uranium in the garage?
To be at the mercy of a schedule is no better than being at the mercy of one’s appetites, and it’s not all that different, either: we eat and schedule what we think we want, what we believe we need and what we hope will satisfy us. It’s not out of our hands; it’s under our control.
But from now on, if someone asks how I am, I’ll say “I’m looking forward to summer,” or “I’m just about to have a slice of pizza, so life couldn’t be better” or something else vapidly cheerful. I'll tell them about having my picture taken with the mascot of the sports team at my college which is the kind of thing nobody would expect from me. Not so very long ago, I would have said I was "too busy" for that sort of thing. Not anymore--it looked as if it might be fun and indeed it was.
I will stop saying that I’m “wildly busy,” “buried with work” or “swamped.” I’ll put a stop to what my friend Meg Pearson points out is the most common of humble-brags. I will stop saying my days are “insane” “nuts” or “crazy busy”; I will, in fact, dismiss any adjectival phrase that reflects on my mental health or anyone else’s.
I’ll remember what another friend, Helen Lukash, reminded me: Socrates warned us a long time ago to “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Here’s my new motto: Never be too occupied to be able to help the lady asking for the Cheerios. Or to embrace the mascot. Or to come up with a new motto entirely.