In the first episode of Humans of New York’s new video series, entitled “Time,” a wispy-haired woman reflects on her college years: “I was an excellent lawn sitter in college. There was an excellent lawn right outside the student union at my college and many, many, many hours were spent sitting on that lawn…and it was very slow then.”
Watching the video from my campus apartment, I imagine myself doing the same—unwinding on a warm lawn abuzz with microscopic bugs and sprinkled with leaves. But the lawn isn’t at Boston College. My hometown’s University of Colorado comes to mind, or a lawn at the Boston Public Garden, but never BC.
When my parents shadowed me to class during a freshman year visit, my dad exclaimed sarcastically, “Did somebody ring a bell or pull the fire alarm? Where’s everybody going?” BC students crisscrossed the quad with the energy and haste of downtown Boston traffic, cutting across one another and swerving from one building to the next.
“They’re going to class, Dad. Something I know you didn’t do much of,” I joked back, jabbing at the fact that the majority of his college stories orbited around frat houses and late night pizza.
Three years later, as a senior with a personal mission to be un-busy, his words have returned to me—this time as an informal slogan for what I would argue is the illness of our student body.
BC students impulsively seize on busyness not because it will help them to best achieve their goals or bring them joy, but because they are crippled by un-busyness. In the campus microsphere, slow, unstructured time has no evident end, and thus haunts students with the impression that it has no worth.
Consequently, even traditionally spontaneous things, such as getting lunch or playing tennis, become structured—scheduled no less than two days in advance. Finding mutual free time becomes a game of Battleship, where each person probes blindly for a few desired spaces, and in the process discovers just how involved the other person is.
Of course, all this is not without its good. In large part, the commitment students feel to their clubs and extracurriculars defines BC student life. Countless hours that could easily be spent watching Netflix or mindlessly scrolling Reddit are instead dedicated to fundraising, editing student journals, and mentoring little sisters. In the micro, these commitments are constructive and bring our campus to life.
But when seen from a bird’s eye (or, drone’s eye) view, sped up videos of students frenetically criss-crossing the Student Involvement Fair are a good representation of the frenzy with which students scribble their names onto signup sheets simply in the pursuit of being busier than thou.
The chaos of student inboxes following the involvement fair is nothing compared to the real-life chaos of rushing from one half-baked commitment to another, with a to-go boxed dining hall meal in hand.
The problem with all this rushing around is not that the destination activities are unworthy. The problem is that the sense of urgency that comes with hyper-involvement saps the activities of their sense of worth.
When I ask students about what they have going on in their day, rarely do they express excitement. They tell me about dreading the reading they have to do for history, being stressed that they have to go to practice, and wanting more than anything to take a nap.
What irks me about this attitude of stressful obligation is that the obligation is entirely an illusion.
Unlike grades K-12, which we were legally obligated to attend, nobody at college is compelled to be there. It is a highly expensive privilege. Most students are completely free to choose their major, and the individual courses within that; theoretically, the readings we’re assigned are supposed to interest us.
Finally, clubs and activities are the dessert—the outlets for passions, or quirky obsessions, that don’t fit into the structure of the classroom. They are the things we supposedly love to do.
Instead of being joyful and meaningful in and of themselves, school activities become a vehicle for getting to some future destination—a dream job in the city, or a fellowship abroad—so students throw their lot in with as many as possible. This explains how activities that are supposed to be fun and optional become hampered by an immense sense of stress and (illusory) obligation.
But life won’t always be so free. With graduation comes the actual obligation to earn an income, the obligation to do work (or be fired), and perhaps eventually, the obligation to another human being. Layering on commitments now is no formulaic guarantee that adulthood will be a glamorous breeze.
The eighth episode of Humans of New York: The Series, entitled “Help,” opens on a man standing still in a subway underpass as a high-speed river of people part to avoid him—all of them racing to the end of the tunnel. “We’re all in a rat race, look at this, we’re in a rat race,” he says with exasperation. “To go where, to go where?”
Un-busyness, as I hope to practice it, offers an answer to that question. It means doing the things I am confident will advance me in a concrete way towards a concrete “there,” but also giving equal weight to the things that have meaning in the here and now. It means being selective about which activities are most important to me.
Un-busyness opens up the possibility of immersing myself in a reading and enjoying it, without the urgency of skimming. It means being mentally present at a club meeting, without the impetus to secure a job looming.
And on a fleetingly clear day, it means enjoying a slow, important moment on the Lyons lawn.