The curse of being busy

Published January 17, 2024
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy

THERE used to be a time when the ultimate symbol of a good life was being able to have plenty of time for leisure activities. One can still read about it in literature.

The Victorians, for instance, rich thanks to the wealth looted from India and other colonies, flaunted their leisure time. They took grand tours on the Continent — which was essentially slow travel and spending months in a single city or country. They also collected curios that they displayed all over their living rooms, where they hosted everything from afternoon teas to a game of charades.

The enjoyment of such leisure was not just the forte of the British. Before their time in India, the pursuits of Mughal royalty were well known. In fact, art, music and literature flourished because there was a leisure class that was available to consume and enjoy them. Many a Mughal miniature shows ladies in repose, lounging on a dais.

The men of Mughal royalty got around to doing a bit more. For instance, many hunting scenes have been depicted. It might, however, not be very easy to find renditions of the hunting Mughals as academicians.

There was hardly any multitasking for the leisure classes of yore. There were many times that people did nothing at all; when they did do something it would appear as if that was the only thing they did.

This idea is going to be anathema to the next generation; indeed, it probably already is for members of Gen Z and the succeeding Gen Alpha. Turn to any social media platform, and you will be confronted with people who are ‘multitasking’.

Many women showcase their skincare routines but it is never just that; they are also providing life updates, sipping on protein shakes and answering texts on their phone. Multitasking is just about everywhere. And the more ‘everywhere’ it is, the more the rest of us are expected to partake of it.

All those who find it necessary to project their faux busyness should remember that they are aping oppressors.

Inextricably linked to the multitasking epidemic is the more noxious cult of ‘busyness’. Nobody shows off like the Mughals or the Victorians anymore by commissioning paintings that depict them as relaxing and doing nothing other than having fun.

Quite the opposite. In the modern era, the order of the day is to be seen as constantly, endlessly ‘busy’. It does not matter which big city in the world you may find yourself in; you will run into the same conversation — people complaining about how busy they are, how they have no time for this or that or themselves.

Such is the cult of busyness that it has generated other trends. Among the more pervasive inclinations, is to portray the business of taking care of oneself. Indeed, the novel concept of ‘self-care’ is all the rage. Taking a nap is self-care, washing your face is self-care, not answering texts for a few hours is self-care. Self-care exists and has to be defended, lest others think you’re not busy enough and pile more things on you, or worse still, think you’re a nobody and are, in fact, a loser with nothing to do.

None of this is good for us as human beings. In fact, the focus on self-care can be regarded as a desperate measure in a world in which the individual is overwhelmed with the demands of appearing busy to others.

The worst offenders of the cult of busyness are those who are actually not busy. These may include, for instance, women of leisure, for whom cultivating an illusion of busyness is a social media badge of honour. It follows that these people, and others like them, are invested in further popularising ‘busyness’.

When novels depicting our times are written, they will be full of this sort of self-projection; ie, people busy being too busy. In the meantime, those who are actually busy — say, the working mother who has no option but to juggle her job, her kids, her husband and various other family members — will rarely make an appearance in these catalogues of our moment.

If civilisation were to end tomorrow and Instagram was the only thing to survive, whoever came after us would think that we spent all our time using filtered images of ourselves to show what moisturiser and sunblock we used or the number of designer handbags we had in our closet.

It is entirely possible that the cultural commentators of eras past were similarly disgruntled by the long stretches of free time available to the landlords and the princes while the labourers and peasants toiled throughout their waking hours. It would be seen as an issue of injustice, because the leisure of one was dependent on the toil of another.

The sad truth is that this exploitative loop has not changed over the ages. The exploiters of today are simply cleverer. If you are constantly ‘busy’, then the people who actually have no time to breathe are denied even the small joy of pointing to your leisure as evidence of their own exploitation. Everyone else who finds it necessary to project their faux busyness should remember that they are aping oppressors and not those who are truly busy.

So perhaps it is time to introspect for those projecting themselves as being ‘busy’ and using ‘busyness’ as a way to exhibit some imagined coolness. If you are truly too busy to not be able to do one task at a time or get some sleep or bathe regularly or take a nap sometimes, you have problems bigger than simply over-commitment.

And if someone else complains about how busy they are, stop them in their tracks or at the very least roll your eyes. We all have time to do that.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2024

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