Cartoonist and essayist Tim Kreider’s latest piece for The New York Times Opinionator series on anxiety was well received by the many among us who suffer from the self-imposed over-busyness Kreider’s essay decried. Most Americans, Kreider claimed, choose to fill their lives with largely unnecessary work while overlooking the importance of idleness. “The ‘Busy’ Trap” was mentioned everywhere, from WSJ.com to MSNBC’s Morning Joe. It also clogged my Twitter feed, the link usually accompanied by a suggestion that we would all benefit from taking Kreider’s wise words to heart. Even now, five days after the piece was published, “The ‘Busy’ Trap” is one of the most viewed and emailed pieces on NYTimes.com, second only to news about the discovery of a little something that may be the key to the entire universe.
Kreider claims in the piece that he is not plagued by this over-busyness himself, having long since risen above such “histrionic exhaustion” and the “institutional self-delusion” that the work we do matters. “I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know,” he proudly declares, adding:
On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day.
The long bike ride may not be the tranquil country jaunt Kreider’s words suggest. A look through the Opinionator’s archives shows Kreider wrote another essay about anxiety that suggested a contradictory means of escape from the “busy trap.” In May 7’s “Fear and Cycling,” Kreider said that bicycling through New York City’s danger-ridden asphalt jungle was “one of the only times when I am never anxious or afraid.” Just two months ago, the focus required to survive these two-wheeled adventures was Kreider’s only release from the otherwise constant “clammy paralysis of worry” and early-morning “spasms of panic.”
I’m convinced these are the conditions in which we evolved to thrive: under moderate threat of death at all times, brain and body fully integrated, senses on high alert, completely engaged with our environment. It is, if not how we’re happiest — we’re probably happiest in a hot tub with a martini and a very good naked friend — how we are most fully and electrically alive.
So, which is it? Do we alleviate the anxieties imposed by the modern world by throwing ourselves into the first death-defying activity we find, or should we indulge in idleness, preferably at an “Undisclosed Location” that is free of Internet and full of buttercups? Is Kreider an insomniac worrywart who can only find release by putting his life on the line, or has he discovered, in his “defiant indolence” and “resolute idleness,” that “life is too short to be busy?”
Kreider wouldn’t say. “[A]rtists (including writers) are best advised to shut up about their own work once they’ve finished it,” he wrote in an email to CJR. “[I]f [the essays] do contradict each other that’s fine with me—lots of things that are true are also contradictory.” It should be noted that Kreider wrote this from “a friend’s extended 4th of July party,” where, it appears, he was able to juggle work and play.