There is an abundance of articles, books, influencers, and smart people espousing the idea that you are doing something important when you aren’t doing anything at all. That just being is important. I’ve wholeheartedly bought into this idea that the fetishization of productivity (doing) is negative and I have worked to develop a healthy (in my view) balance of both doing and being. This includes making sure that time for relaxing and recuperating is built into my schedule. I think of this as the anti-hustle culture and it asks us to question our busyness and in the least reject it as a virtue.
I experience being too busy in a somewhat paradoxical way. On the one hand, it’s a thing to complain about; a way to find common ground with others who are also quite busy. However, it’s also a respected reason to not connect with others. It can be both a connector and a divider. It can be something that makes me feel good and bad. I often find myself seeking out ways to be busy, always looking to multitask and accomplish more in a day than I did the previous day. I feel good about myself when I am busy but if I don’t achieve my arbitrarily set level of “busy enough” I feel like I’ve disappointed myself. Since becoming a mom and feeling the day-ruining anxiety that came with my urgency to always be “doing” I began looking for more ways to just “be”. Merely being present for my child is doing and being all in one and a great gift to both of us. I have been searching for more of that perfect balance.
One of the reasons for achieving stillness and having times when you are not busy is to be more present in life. To be better able to experience moments and emotions rather than being distracted from them. Children are notorious for living in the moment with hearts full of joy and an outlook full of wonder. There are many truths embodied by childhood that adults have been ushered away from in the long process of growing up. Much of the anti-hustle culture strives to reclaim these lost gems of presence, play, joy, wonder, and creativity. As my husband says, children are already “beautiful and free and complete.” In my own life, I’ve found that slowing down and cutting down on the perpetual “doing” makes space for childish pursuits, which bolsters my ability to live in the moment and experience life. When I’m less focused on productivity I have more opportunities to lift my head up from the incessant doing and feel wonder and peace.
I was feeling comfortable with the connection between the presence and wonder experienced by children and the presence and wonder experienced when slowing down and un-busying myself. But then I saw my 7 year old niece playing with my toddler. They were both busy as hell! She was organizing the cat toys, the kitchen table, and Ezra’s toys—a favorite of mine too!
“Busy Toddler” is a Thing
If children want to be so busy, then it seems ingrained in us to always be doing something. I’ve been confused by this new information. If I aspire to recapture the wonder, honesty, and joy of childhood if children never slow down, why am I slowing down and unplugging? I just felt like there was something there. Something to more closely inspect about this nexus of complementary ideas that slowing down is a virtue and that childlike wonder is also a virtue. Its apparently a contradiction because children are so busy!
Here’s the Problem with “Busy Toddler”
I’m projecting the label “busy” onto what they’re doing. I’m calling it busy but that word has connotations of overwhelm, workaholism, lack of prioritisation, missed opportunities, directionless motion. Those just don’t apply to children. I’m looking at what they’re doing through my productivity-oriented brain. Even though I am aware of the importance of unplugging and downtime and taking rest, I still view activity as binary. Someone is either doing or being.
The funny thing is that I’m well aware of this trap that I find myself falling into—the trap of wrongly reducing something complex into two incompatible choices. Helping my students avoid this trap was one of my priorities as an art teacher. I didn’t introduce “failure” or the notion that they could be doing art “the wrong way” in my class. Art is a process. Failure can’t be a thing because art is not something you sit down and figure out. It’s a search. Not everyone resonates with every type of art. Sometimes the process is necessarily about figuring out where you can feel like you are really absorbed by what you’re doing, finding where you enjoy messing around. Sometimes nothing comes from messing around. Sometimes something does. Even though many people readily admit to “not being artistically inclined” they still seem to hold a lot of rigid, pre-set limitations about what art actually is. When what we create goes in a different direction than those pre-set limitations we think we’ve failed but actually our scope is just too limited to see that this is exactly the work that we need to embrace. We are already indeed authentic creators. Children are no different, they are also already authentic creators and the wonderful thing is that they don’t yet have that association of failure with what they’re doing.
Failure is the Work
What I see in my toddler and my niece is art: experimentation, creation, failure (interesting outcomes). They do not yet have negative associations with failure. Ezra is testing the boundaries of the world. He’s got nothing to show for it other than his way of being extremely present and full of wonder. The failure is the path. The failure is another version of that perfect doing and being balance that I strive for.
The practices of stillness, becoming less busy, and cultivating an outlook of wonder are aimed at restoring our openness so, like children, we can enter the moments of our lives completely.
The failure is the work.