How often do you hear that in response to the question, “How’s it going?” or “How are you?” As a signifier busy has replaced doing well – equal parts occupied and honest, abandoned of concern for quality or well-being. And we all understand what it means: harried, overworked, over-scheduled, stretched thin. And we all can sort of commiserate about the state of affairs that deposits us there, short for time and ill-nourished by several easily quantifiable measures. What was once friendly advice after a trauma or tragedy (try to stay busy [and not think about it]) has become the price of admission to this grand life of convenience with which we’ve surrounded ourselves. We have connected affluence and worth to a high volume of activity, heedless even of the nature of that activity.

But when someone is actually engaged in some thing or activity that might produce actual fatigue or absent-mindedness, they don’t report being ‘busy’ but most likely just share what it is they’re doing and allow a conversation to bleed out from there. The importance of the activity, in other words, would take precedence over anything for which ‘busy’ could be a placeholder or substitute for conversation. So we also kind of know that for which ”busy’ stands: quotidian, not quite meaningful but necessary, a function of several levels of overlapping obligations and commitments intended to keep our daily lives moving, with no regard for moving us, or it or anything, forward. It’s hamsterwheel-y.

And it’s not just moving kids around, paying bills or buying groceries that applies here. Even our work can and often does take on the characteristic of motion instead of movement, to the extent that we lose track of the distinctions and forget it’s even happening, and soon the elements of life all run together into an endless stream of commitments we’re merely rushing around to fulfill. We openly admit to ‘staying busy’ as though that is something to be admired and not the minimum-level activity it infers; it certainly saves us from accusations of harboring the evil dread of free and open time, from which surely nothing good can come. And we’re not even appalled by this anymore, if we ever were. We just add another errand to list, get our prescriptions filled and try to… stay busy.

But this is our lives we’re talking about here, and merely being busy should be considered a kind sentence, a punishment for not being engaged in worthwhile activity – whether that activity is writing sonnets or selecting the near-perfect tomato. Actually, especially if it’s about shopping or anything related to cooking or any time-intensive activity ‘Busy’ simply doesn’t begin to cover nor would we want it to. Many things we might do are just more important than that. So we should frown upon and stop allowing ‘busy’ as a kind of lame stand-in for living. Every element of transitional (nee sustianable) living will flow out of that. It won’t be seamless and will take time. But the best things often do.

Because I’ve seen so little reference to it anywhere, here’s a link to the best op-ed in the Times/IHT this week.

Image by my daughter, taken at our vet’s office, of self-rescued chickens that plunged from a transport truck and towards a, um, different fate.