Idle Times

Photo by Chris Lawton

“How can you just SIT there?”


“How you can you NOT?” was the equally irritated response I gave to my longest and very best friend in the whole wide world.


It was 2001 and we were at odds in our shared loft in Brooklyn. Being on opposite ends of the spectrum was what made our friendship so fun. We discussed differing viewpoints, never liked the same guy, and balanced each other out in our studies, and ways of living. If she was a Vodka Dirty Martini straight up with extra olives, I was a shot of Jameson with a Bud Light back. It worked.


But on this day, Nicole stood over me as I laid out on our hot pink IKEA couch like a cat purring in a patch of sunlight. For me, Sunday mornings meant recuperating from my weekend shifts at the bar where my days were upside down. Sleep was reserved for the sunlight hours in preparation for my job that started at 7 PM and ended at 5 AM. Some nights (the good ones), I didn’t catch a taxi until 8 AM when the McDonald’s drive-thru, much to my dismay, switched over to the breakfast menu.


My internal clock was all messed up and I couldn’t sleep. My mother’s cure for insomnia has always been a good book. So there I laid on the couch, trying to fall asleep, and Nic was up and running. It was 9 AM and she had already worked out, made a healthy breakfast, threw in two loads of laundry, and before turning her over-achieving eyes my way, was on her hands and knees scrubbing an already clean kitchen floor. Just watching her gave me anxiety.


And, apparently, her watching me just be, made her enraged.


This was one of our very rare fights in the history of our now 25+ year friendship that was actually real. I didn’t judge her toiling ways, her self-imposed busyness, and her ability to make things I found trivial exceedingly important. So how dare she judge my relaxing? (Well earned, I might add.)


It seems Nicole was ahead of the curve.


Here we are almost two decades later and almost everyone in America has the disease of being busy, never at rest, never at ease, never calm, never present.  


Just try and make plans these days and it’s a clusterfuck of I’m-so-busy-I-can’t-that-day scheduling.


Wanna grab a slice and catch up with an old friend? Sure, they’ve got a free night two weeks from now. Playdate for your kid? Morgan can do 45 minutes next weekend between tutoring and ballet. “Very important“ business meetings require 8+ emails before being sandwiched in to a day of “back-to-backs.”


So how did we get here? At what point did filling our calendars and minds with to-do lists and action items become the new normal?  


And what is lost as ease, rest, and presence fade?


Before we answer that let’s start with what is gained. It’s a dirty 6-letter word and it starts with an S and ends with ‘tress’.




Ask any one of those people I mentioned above how they are feeling and the word “stressed” will be one of the first they mention.


The American Psychological Association reports that 75% of adults experienced moderate to high levels of stress in the past month and nearly half reported that their stress has increased in the past year.


Worse yet, they say it is a top health concern for U.S. teens between 9th and 12th grade, and that if they don’t learn healthy ways to manage that stress now, it could have serious long-term health implications. The most stressful decision I had to make in 9th grade was which hypercolor shirt I was going to wear to the school dance.


Most folks will say they are busier now than they were when they were a decade ago, and I know for certain that my life is more complicated today than it was in 9th grade. But isn't that the opposite of what was supposed to happen as the world went into our hands?


I am somewhere between the ages of 28 and 40, and I can tell you that I had a life and career before all of these gadgets arrived on the scene.


B.E. (before email) if you wanted someone to read something you had to fax it to them. Thennnn you had to hope and pray that someone walked over to the fax at their end AND picked it up and read it. Don’t even get into the wormhole of “Is it the right person?” or “Did it fall off the machine?” or “How many days until they check it and fax back?” It wasn’t an ideal workflow, but there is something about it that I miss.  


Me? I was intentional about it. My fax machine at the local newspaper I worked at in upstate New York only received my presence after I had handled all the items I deemed important on my agenda that day. That fax machine constantly spit out shit that other people needed from me. So why on God's green earth would I visit it before I handled the things that I needed from me?


That difference is being proactive vs. reactive.


The word “reactive” implies that you let the events (or faxes) set the agenda. “Proactive” is calm under stress. So what does this have to do with faxes and why I am I getting all Lisa-Frank-nostalgic on your ass?


Fax machines required a proactive mindset. Emails, texts, and notifications? It’s basically like having someone throw hundreds, if not thousands, of digital communications AT. YOUR. FACE. ALL. DAY. LONG.


How are you to put your best foot, your best work, and your best thoughts forward when you’re living under a waterfall of data? Waterfalls never turn off.  Eventually, the constant battering will become too heavy and take you under.


People are hustling themselves right into doctors offices with complete burnout, anxiety, autoimmune diseases, or even heart attacks. And those who choose to self-medicate instead of seeking out professional help fall face first into a bottle-of-wine-a-night-problem to cope, because, hey, if you can’t see straight you can’t email amiright?


So why are we turning to doctors and addiction to grant us the permission to rest our bodies and minds?


Because this societal form of pseudo-self-inflicted torture is the new normal.


But it doesn’t have to be.


Background, Context & Reference


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