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What The Coronavirus Pandemic Reveals About The Endless Urge To Stay Busy

During the lockdown, everyone acts in a different way: some wear their jogging or pyjama all day long, some read all the time, others clean their home more often than usual, do yoga, cook, speak on the phone, have a drink, re-do their interior, sleep and relax or just spend time with their companion and / or their children. (ELENA FUSCO/AFP via Getty Images)
During the lockdown, everyone acts in a different way: some wear their jogging or pyjama all day long, some read all the time, others clean their home more often than usual, do yoga, cook, speak on the phone, have a drink, re-do their interior, sleep and relax or just spend time with their companion and / or their children. (ELENA FUSCO/AFP via Getty Images)

“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.”

Søren Kierkegaard

If you’re at home more now — and doing less — does that actually feel better? We’ll talk about what the pandemic is teaching us about the endless urge to be busy.


Omid Safi, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University. Columnist for the On Being Project, where he’s written about busyness. Founder of Illuminated Courses, where he is currently teaching a class on Rumi.  (@ostadjaan)

Brian O’Connor, professor of philosophy at University College Dublin and at the university’s Center for Ethics in Public Life. Author of “Idleness: A Philosophical Essay,” a book challenging the case against idleness. (@UCDPhilosophy)

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Some audio from this hour is sourced from coronadiaries.io, an open source audio project supported by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. The audios are licensed under a Creative Commons Atribution 4.0 International License.

Interview Highlights

How has your life been changed or transformed by this moment?

Omid Safi: “This is something that very few of us could have seen coming and we didn’t go into it with a map or with a plan. And I think in the first few days, like a lot of other people, I found myself experiencing a very deep sense of loss and focusing on all the things that we’re not getting to do. And I’m very fortunate enough to be married to someone a lot wiser than myself. And so she very wisely turned it around for me and said, ‘Well, you know, everyone is talking about everything that is prohibited or recommended against. What is it that we are getting to do? What is it that we do want to use this time for?’ And my wife is a gardener, and so she very much speaks in these natural cycles.

“And the language that she gave me was: a life that is not so much stripped down, but it is distilled. And that’s kind of what the last few weeks have felt like. It really feels like distilling life to the essence and we are much more — trying at least — to be present with one another. Focused on checking in with loved ones, on very simple home-cooked meals, when we are able to take a walk outside. And there’s actually, you know, something quite beautiful, in the midst of this storm that is around us, and all of the uncertainty and all of the suffering that we see, I think there’s some sense that the pace of life that we were living before was not so humane.”

On acknowledging that there are many essential workers who are busier than ever during the coronavirus pandemic

Omid Safi: “I think it’s a good reminder that sometimes we use the language that we’re all in this together. Well, we may be all in it together, but we’re not all in it in the same way. And it has very different consequences for us. And I think, you know, we were seeing some of the much-deserved attention that the health care providers, that the people who stock grocery stores, the postal workers, that the essential services are providing. And one of the things that I really appreciate — and every time I see people going out and clapping for health care workers as they’re getting off their shift — is a reminder that what we’re really choosing to value is service. It’s people who are extending themselves in love, and service and care towards others.”

On what busyness does to us

Brian O’Connor: “A further thing I’d emphasize here is a very distinctive feature of the contemporary age. It’s been developing over centuries, but has come to a completely abnormal level in recent times. There’s a kind of busyness that’s dedicated to sort of making a name for oneself, you know, establishing an identity. Whether it be a social media identity, a presence, a personality or a professional one where visibility, where relentless visibility is required. I think that probably the most stressful thing that many people put themselves through is building a visibility, which is highly dependent on whether anyone wants to look at you and whether anyone wants to regard you as worth looking at. I think that an escape from that strikes me as a pretty liberating possibility.”

On finding meaning in work

Omid Safi: “I would rejoice if everybody finds the work that they do to be one that gives their life a sense of meaning. I am never against the sense of living a meaningful life. I hope that work has dignity in whatever sense it is that we do. I think the distinction I’m trying to make is that I’m not so persuaded that busyness and meaningfulness are one and the same. It’s possible to be busy all the time, but not necessarily be engaged in activities that are particularly meaningful. And a lot of the work that is the most meaningful, you know, when you sit down with a loved one and you have your hand on their arm and you’re listening very attentively, you may not look very busy in that moment, even though it’s the most meaningful thing that you could be doing.

“So I would say the fact that your life is meaningful is wonderful. And I think a lot of us, myself included, who come from immigrant backgrounds, we’ve been raised to measure part of our contribution through the extent to which we can make a meaningful difference to the society that we now call home. I just want to make sure that that doesn’t come at the expense of reflection and the examined life, as Socrates would call it, that ultimately makes it worth living.”

Does a reduction in busyness create the space for meaningful change in our lives?

Brian O’Connor: “Obviously, I would welcome that, but I have my doubts. And the reason for that is that we haven’t gotten to the place we’ve been in by accident. It has been pretty much a case of a process of social evolution, of education, of training, of socialization that is very deeply ingrained in us, very deeply ingrained in us. I mean, when you think about one of the complaints that many people have under the current lockdown is boredom. And boredom is always a symptom of not knowing how to spend your time in a way that’s satisfying. And this is because people haven’t really had the experience of having to spend so much time using their own initiative. We’ve been well-trained to undertake tasks, to move to each task that’s put in front of us.

“And successful people are those who identify the tasks and get them done quickly and impressively. But we’re very much socialized as creatures of a certain type. I guess I wonder whether when all of this is over, it won’t be a little bit like those promises people make on vacation saying, ‘Oh, I never want to go back to work. I’m going to read novels every day from now on.’ And it just drifts away over time. And I’m not saying this because that’s the way human beings naturally are. I don’t know what human beings naturally are. I suspect that we’ve been naturally socialized to be busy, though. And I think it’s going to be a generational process if we’re ever going to reverse that.”

From The Reading List

On Being: “The Disease of Being Busy” — “I saw a dear friend a few days ago. I stopped by to ask her how she was doing, how her family was. She looked up, voice lowered, and just whimpered: ‘I’m so busy… I am so busy… have so much going on.'”

On Being: “The Thief of Intimacy, Busyness” — “I was sitting in our living room a few days ago, with my laptop on my lap, doing what I always do ‘after work’ — answering emails that don’t stop at 5, catching up on business.”

On Being: “Learning How to Breathe Again” — “I think I have forgotten how to breathe. Or, at least, I have forgotten how to breathe properly. Perhaps it is a sign of how out of sync our lives are that so many of us have forgotten how to breathe.”

The Guardian: “No spare time in lockdown? That’s not such a bad thing” — “From the minute we went into lockdown, there’s been a lively discussion, online and elsewhere, about how to fill all our extra spare time. We parents of small children permitted ourselves a hollow laugh at that (before immediately worrying that the hollow laugh was turning into a dry cough). Because for us, there was suddenly no time at all. Every waking second was accounted for, so the advice that we might seize this opportunity to reread the novels of Jane Austen or dust off our half-written screenplays felt deeply surreal – and therefore, I suppose, entirely in keeping with the times.”

The Ringer: “How to Quit Your Phone and Change Your Life By … Doing Nothing” — “Jenny Odell’s preferred time for a hike is on a weekday in the late morning, when the trails are empty and she can really listen. When we meet—on a Thursday—in March, most of the other people on the wooded Oakland, California, path are retirees or professional dog walkers. Several decades younger than the retirees and dog-free, Odell is a 32-year-old artist, writer, and lecturer at Stanford University, and also the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Packed with big ideas and calls to action, her first book is a proclamation of why we need to rewire our goalsin these digitally enmeshed times.”

The Guardian: “How to do nothing: the new guide to refocusing on the real world” — “In How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, the artist, writer and Stanford professor Jenny Odell questions ‘what we currently perceive as productive’. She wants to give readers permission to be a human, in a body, in a place.”

Shondaland: “Why Doing Nothing is Actually One of the Best Things You Can Do” — “When was the last time you did nothing? By nothing, we mean absolutely nothing — no scrolling social media, no reading books or articles, no listening to podcasts, and no watching movies, TV, or YouTube videos.”

New York Times: “Stop Trying to Be Productive” — “When Dave Kyu, 34, an arts administrator in Philadelphia, realized that he would be working from home for the foreseeable future, he began to fantasize about the projects he could now complete around the house.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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