Busy is a Four Letter Word

August 24, 2020 § 4 Comments

I’m guilty of this crime as much as anyone I know… but. You know what makes me crazy? When you ask people how they are and they say “Busy!

One reason it bothers me, I think, is because it says absolutely nothing. Saying you’re “busy” is another version of “I’m fine”: it pretends to be informative, but it really isn’t.

Another reason this answer bothers me, though, is because it is symptomatic of what we culturally value: busyness. God forbid we all slow down and think for a few minutes. I think one of the potential benefits we can take from a terrible, tragic event such as a 9/11 or a pandemic is that it forces people to stop, to snap out of their I’m so busy lives, step off the never-ending treadmill and actually consider what the world is like, and their lives in it.

Is this what I want? we stop to ask ourselves. Do my actions reflect my values?

I’m not saying no one out there is ever thoughtful or contemplative until catastrophe strikes, but just that normally our culture tends to discourage thoughtfulness… and I’m so busy is a symptom of what I would call a destructive tendency to carry on and not think too deeply about troublesome things.

This is why a person like Greta Thunberg is so striking, and unnerving, to many of us. She immediately understood the problem with carrying on as if nothing were wrong and decided- against incredible social pressures to go to school, to think about her grades, her future- to stop being too busy to do anything about it. Thunberg is proof that being busy isn’t always the way to be most effective. In fact sometimes stopping is the most important thing you can do.

Doing a project like a Year of No Garbage is one way to force myself to stop being busy, and instead focus on life from a new vantage point. It’s not something everyone can do, obviously, because there are mortgages to worry about and car payments to make and kids to feed, but if I can go to that strange country of Stopping, that means I can report back to everyone else what I found out in my travels.

I can report, for example that lately I find myself questioning some pretty fundamental things about the way our family lives that previously I always took for granted. For example:

  • Sure we live in a rural area, but do we really need two cars? Like, really?
  • Sure, single-stream recycling is much easier, but is separating and hauling our recycling to the local transfer station a better, more effective option? (They take more things- broken glass, batteries, small appliances- and the service is free, to residents.)
  • Is there another way we can affordably heat our house that is more earth friendly?

And I’m re-examining things I previously just accepted at face value:

  • Are most “recyclables,” in fact, being recycled? (Answer: Stay tuned.)
  • Are most “compostables” actually compostable? (Answer: Nope.)
  • How does my detergent-free laundry system actually work? Is it really harmless to myself and the environment? (Answer: This post.)

We are told so many things by our culture, and often we accept them, even when they are completely contradictory. We are told that the things we do as individuals matter in the grand scheme of things: Voting. Thinking globally and acting locally. Recycling. Shunning straws. Bringing your own bags. Voting with your checkbook by buying organic produce, supporting your local farmer, buying the more expensive product with recycled packaging.

But we’re also told that there are some things for which there is simply no solution. We just have to throw away certain materials. There is just no way to recycle everything.

Really? Because the village of Kamikatsu in Japan recycles 80 percent of their waste. Watch this video and you’ll see them doing all those things that are supposedly impossible for the average citizen to do: washing out flexible plastics, drying packaging on hanging racks, sorting recyclables into forty-five different categories.

This four minute video is worth the watch

Yes, the individual does matter, but it only goes so far; there are some things one individual cannot do alone. If the system doesn’t exist to manage forty-five different kinds of recyclables, one person can’t will it into existence- and believe me I’ve tried.

For every Zero-Waster out there wrapping cheese in burlap and string, there are a hundred more people putting perfectly good things in the landfill just because it’s easier and they have to get on with it. Because: busy. If I’m honest, I have been each of these people at different times in life. We need a system that will work for both of them.

Our society’s been talking about recycling since the seventies: fifty years. So why doesn’t such a system already exist? Compared to Kamikatsu’s 80%, why do Americans recycle only 35% of our waste? I blame too busy. We’re too busy to think more deeply about the overall way our society is constructed. When we’re too busy we throw things away because figuring it out too hard. Or the compost is icky. Or taking the trouble to bring some packaging home is inconvenient. When we’re too busy we accept the lies that “compostable” packing is actually compostable, that recyclable is truly recyclable, and that some things just can’t be recycled. When we’re too busy we fall victim to “green washing,” and practice “wishful recycling,” and accept that a picture of an arrow or a tree somewhere on a product means something, when we should know better. Too busy means something else is taking your time and attention instead of the matter at hand. Greta Thunberg is right: the environment is the matter at hand and there is nothing else that even remotely comes close to it. What could possibly be more important? Without an environment in which to take place, all those things that keep us so blissfully busy will- one day-cease to exist.

Johnny Cash does a lovely rendition of “I’m Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor”

It won’t happen all at once. It happens slowly, like being swallowed by a snake. Remember that old Shel Silverstein song “I’m Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor”? The kid keeps singing, describing different parts of him being swallowed: “Oh no, he swallowed my toe!” and “Oh me, he swallowed my knee!” The punch line comes at: “Oh dread, he’s up to my – slurp!”

So I think, if you are able to take the opportunity to stop and reevaluate how you go about your daily life, then take advantage of it. But, no matter what, be wary of being too busy. The snake smiles at that answer.

What would happen, I wonder, if the next time you were asked “How are you?” you were to answer: “I’m thinking” ?

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