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A Day in the Life

Busyness

‘Attend to what love requires of you which may not be great busyness.’

If I’ve ever sent you an email, you may have noticed that beneath my signature, I include a quotation. I do it because one of the ways I manage my own well-being is to refer to the thoughts of others. I don’t expect to be able to manage on my own – I expect to need the wisdom of the ages. As John Donne famously preached ‘No man is an island.’ The quotations come from anywhere and everywhere and I am slowly compiling a book of them. One of my absolute favourites is from a key Quaker text called ‘Advices and Queries’. It is from Advice 28:

‘Attend to what love requires of you which may not be great busyness.’

When I feel pressed to take on more than I can reasonably do, to burn the midnight oil, to say ‘yes’ when I should be saying ‘no’, to start allowing restorative stuff like quiet time alone, exercise in the fresh air and healthy home-cooked meals to fall off my agenda, it’s a great reminder to stop and to stay sane instead.

Busyness is over-rated in our society. It seems to have become a mark of status. Being ‘busy’ seems to help us value ourselves and others, even if it’s turning us into exhausted, stressed out zombies. As W.H. Davies wrote:

‘What is this life, if full of care. We have no time to stand and stare?’

A colleague recently told me that her Headmistress drummed into her pupils that ‘Busy girls are happy girls and happy girls are busy girls.’ I remember being told myself that ‘The Devil makes work for idle hands.’ There’s a real fear of unoccupied minds and hands in these aphorisms and if we’re not careful, we can pass that fear on to the next generation and the next. What’s the message here? That unless we are ‘busy’ we are going to be unhappy or even worse, up to no good?

It’s very tempting when raising children to keep them busy. If they’re busy, we argue, then they’re less likely to be doing something they shouldn’t. They’re ‘making the most of their potential’ and ‘using their talents’ and so we pour our time and our money into endless activity for them, simultaneously keeping ourselves relentlessly busy doing the organising, the chauffeuring and the work that makes the money that pays for all this activity.

But if we love our children, Advice 28 suggests, a requirement may not be busyness for either them or us. Maybe the requirement for us all is more space, more time to chill, to mull, to ‘stand and stare’, to ‘just be’, to be at ease in our own minds and with our own thoughts.

As Blaise Pascal said, ‘All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.’

At the start of the new academic year, when it’s tempting to encourage our children to take up a new activity, can I suggest instead that you encourage them to drop one? I hope that your entire families feel the benefit!