August 25, 2015 by Jean
One of the concepts that comes up repeatedly in the social science literature on retirement is the “culture of busyness” among retirees. The idea behind this concept is that retirees invent activities to keep themselves busy and that they emphasize how busy they are in their conversations with one another and with non-retirees. The assumption in the literature seems to be that much of this activity is empty “busy work.” One explanation for the culture of busyness points to the remnants of the Calvinist work ethic in American culture, which interprets being active and busy as a morally superior state and idleness as morally wrong.
For the past two months, I have been very busy, with something on my calendar almost every day. Is this because I’ve been sucked into the culture of busyness? I don’t think that’s it. Actually, I’m not completely convinced that retirees exemplify the culture of busyness; this may be a mistaken interpretation of seniors’ motivations for their busy lives. But if retirees are prone to busyness for the sake of being busy, there are several factors in my life that provide me with some protection.
I did not grow up in the professional middle class, where work bleeds into home, family life, and leisure. In my working-class family, hard work was very highly valued, but work also had boundaries, marked very clearly by clocking in and clocking out at a time clock, that separated it from home and leisure. Although I lived and worked in the professional upper-middle class for most of my adult life, I maintained the habit of separating work from leisure. Most of my academic colleagues took “working vacations,” combining pleasure travel with research or attendance at professional conferences. I resisted this practice, insisting on travel that was purely for pleasure and had nothing to do with work (a practice that was sometimes regarded as scandalous by my peers). For me, the rhythm of the academic year, with its clearly marked beginnings and endings and cycles of increasing intensity followed by periods of leisure, reinforced my habit of maintaining space in my life for relaxation.
Probably my most important protection against the culture of busyness is my spiritual practice. I am not a conventionally religious person; I don’t belong to a church or attend religious services. My spirituality is about connection with the natural world and the circle of life (which is why I’m an ardent environmentalist). That connection with the natural world requires being still and quiet in that world. When I was working, it was often difficult to find the time for this kind of connection (walking the mile back and forth to work was one way of trying to create that space in my life); now that I’m retired, I set aside time for connecting with nature every day. On Sunday morning, I sat out on the deck in the back garden, my senses open to the world around me. In the stillness, I could hear the faint swish of traffic on the main road about one-half mile from my house and the deeper thrum of some kind of farm equipment further away. In the distance, a single crow cawed. So attuned were my senses that when a low cloud dropped a blanket of mist over my neighborhood, I heard it falling on the leaves in the woods minutes before the first tiny drops appeared on my deck. Far from being morally suspect, being still and quiet is a spiritual imperative for me.
Why then have I been so busy? It appears that in my new life, summer is the busy season. This is the time of year to work on outdoor house and garden projects. It is also the time for socializing with out-of-state friends and relatives. Last week, I worked on a new flower bed in my front garden on three days, had my chimney sweep here to clean my chimney on one day, and had a mason here to repoint the chimney on another day. In addition, I had visitors from out of state on three days. While these types of activity began in June, the pace revs up in August as we realize that summer is almost over.
My experience with social isolation last winter has convinced me to take advantage of the extra opportunities for sociability in summer. But this also means that I need to make extra efforts in summer not to be too busy. Just as I need to make opportunities to socialize with other people at least two days a week in winter, I need to try to keep at least two days a week in summer as days for solitude at home.