The Arrogance Girding Busyness

Friday, November 6, 2015 - 4:54 am

The Arrogance Girding Busyness

I’ve been on a decade-long quest, made even more urgent in the last two years since having a child, to understand why I overcommit. I’ve been trying to de-charge the gravitational pull of my fervent and frequent “Yes” and understand the psychic origins of my attraction to just about everything (sans robots and designer bags). In the process, I’ve gotten brutally honest with myself.

Is it about recognition?

I am part of the generation that was raised on self-esteem education, told that we were all as unique and beautiful as little snowflakes. Dr. Jean Twenge and others have argued that the nasty side effect of all of this shallow praise is a sort of pervasive and unprecedented narcissism and a bottomless hunger for praise.

I’ve really sat with that. Am I motivated by the prospect of another pat on the back? It doesn’t ring true. I love recognition as much as the next living, breathing human being, but I also feel that I’ve gotten more than my fair share of it. I was raised with parents who really and truly saw me and made that clear in various, generous ways. While some may be quite understandably in pursuit of the witness that they never got, that’s not me.

Is it about money?

Well, in part. I’m a cultural migrant. While my parents both went to the local, state school and had the kinds of professions one can easily find on a career survey, I traveled far at 18 years old and never stopped. I’ve never had a full-time job or employer-provided health insurance. Despite the fact that I’ve made a living as a writer and entrepreneur for over a decade now, I never quite believe that I’m secure. Saying no to paid work feels foolhardy no matter how long I’m at this or no matter how much money I have in my checking account. I can hear it in my head now: Nobody actually makes a living as an artist. I am, though, but somehow that voice carries a weight with my unconscious that all the years of contradictory proof can’t quite counter.

Is it about passion?

Yes, truly and genuinely yes. I’m omnivorously interested in so many things: intergenerational relationships, radical philanthropy, libraries, race, history, theater, death, hip hop, basketball, anthropology, cities, early childhood development, documentary film, reconciliation, epigenetics, Buddhism, design, international development, localism, the sharing economy, masculinity, photography, collage, dance parties, ethics, attention, ritual, politics, digital organizing… you can see why this gets exhausting, confusing, overwhelming. We live in a time when those of us with a wide range of interests have never had so much access to information or opportunities pertaining to them. Of course, we sometimes feel like we’re drowning in our own enthusiasm.

These are all pretty intuitive questions to be asking; all, in some form, explain my busyness. But lately I’ve been entertaining a new question, a really hard one: Is it about arrogance?

So much of the public conversation about the harried, modern life is happening among and about privileged people. Many of the most emailed articles at elite publications, the kind read by Ivy League graduates, are about busyness. Yes!, we scream from the digital rooftops, This is my life! I’m too frickin’ busy! What is to be done about it?!

Maybe one piece of the puzzle — to be fair, just a piece — is actually about the arrogance that comes with privilege. Privilege, in many cases, teaches you to overvalue yourself and undervalue others. What if we don’t say no because we have forgotten that someone else is capable of, perhaps even more capable, of doing the project in question?

If I’m being really honest with myself, I think there’s a part of me that overestimates my own power to control and produce. By saying yes, I keep the unexamined assumption alive that I am the only one who can do this thing and do it right. I pack my daughter’s bag even though my husband could do it, in his own way, perfectly well. Or I say yes to a project I don’t actually have the bandwidth for because I haven’t paused to wonder who might contribute with more time and more quality attention. I get tunnel vision. I feel overwhelmed. I take myself too damn seriously.

For now, I’m trying to loosen my grip on “being the one” and turning towards grace. What does a less-harried life filled with more spontaneous pleasures and happy witness look like? How can I make the well-articulated no feel as delicious as the whole-hearted yes? Where is the place in me that knows just what I need to do most with my finite and precious energy right now, not defensively or arrogantly but resolutely and rejoicing?

It’s never been more important to know how to transform your excess of asks — whether because of privilege or talent or some combination — into opportunities for other people to shine. It’s a palpable joy to watch my friends say yes where I have said no, to watch them thrive and surprise. And this is the thing about privilege and the arrogance that stems from it: it keeps us weighted down with self-importance. It traps us in a fog of specialness and busyness.

Instead, live lighter. Practice being humble and acknowledging not just your limitations but the joy you find in the chance to breathe and be unscripted. Where you don’t tread, don’t produce, don’t speak, beautiful others will appear and teach you something.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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