07 August 2012

Utterly Beside the Point

I had a discussion with one of my colleagues at work some months back that worked itself to a point where I said, "Most of what we do in academics, particularly in the humanities, is utterly beside the point."  He took offense, but I would still stand by it.

On Sunday in teisho my attention was drawn to a NYT article, "The Busy Trap."  In it, the author, Tim Kreider, makes the broader point that the busy-ness so many in our whole society seem to suffer under is, at bottom, a self-imposed burden, brought about by toiling over the absolutely unnecessary:
More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.
Most of what we do doesn't matter. 

I would stand by that, too, as well as by his observation that we do this as a way to cover up some deep-seated insecurity about our place on the planet, about our right to live another day, about whether in the end it will be said of us that we "made something" of ourselves.

I understand the anxiety.  Although I get decent enough annual reviews at work, I have to admit that I'm just waiting for them to sack me because I'm not up on the latest, or publishing at a steady pace (or really much at all...).  It's not that I don't do my job, and it's not that I don't do it well enough.  It's just that there's a culture there, as most everywhere, that "well enough" isn't "good enough," that the More and Better buttons need to be constantly pushed.

I'll go back in a week or two and admit that I wrote nothing at all over the summer.  Heck, I didn't even read a single book cover-to-cover in all that time!  While I'm hearing of others' accomplishments, I'll own that I spent almost two weeks total staring at a wall, for instance, or that I killed a lot of time getting more exercise than I had been.  I did do some gardening, but that doesn't register on my service report.  I will confess that I spent a lot of time doing nothing of consequence at all.

But, if Tim Kreider is right, this will put me on precisely the same footing with my colleagues and everyone else who did not enjoy their summer because, even though they were so goshdarn busy, they didn't accomplish anything of consequence, either!  It's just that I will have gotten a lot more fresh air and sunshine and time with people and places I love than they did.  And I'll be all the richer for it.

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