8. Anxiously Busy, Or Really Living?
Some words of Stoic wisdom that teach us a recovery lesson.
Stoic philosophy is something that speaks to me. More than that, you can draw a direct line from the words of the great stoics to the emergence of cognitive behavioral therapy in the 1950s and 60s. Once in a while I’ll bring some of that here for discussion.
”There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing harder to learn.”
Seneca is reminding us here to be mindful of where we are placing our attention and expending our energy. Are we staying “busy”, or are we actually living? For many people, busy takes precedence over living most of the time. Anxious people are no exception. Your anxiety is likely keeping you cemented in the busy zone.
But what does busy look like for for us?
To the rest of the world, anxious, avoidant people don’t look busy at all. An anxious person may spend most of the time at home or in a limited number of safe places doing a limited number of safe things. But this person is nonetheless busy in a different way. This anxious person is occupied during every waking moment by thinking, scanning, evaluating, guarding, dreading, remembering and anticipating. This hidden busyness of the mind is exhausting and will suck all the air out of the room, all the time.
Anxious busyness can also be clear and obvious. For some anxious people being busy becomes a purpose all on its own. Hurrying from task to task and place to place in an attempt to outrun thoughts, emotions, and anxiety symptoms makes them some of the busiest people on the planet, thought not necessarily the most productive for obvious reasons. Choosing to be overtly and literally busy during every waking minute as an escape and avoidance strategy is also quite exhausting and all consuming.
Where then is there space for this “living” that Seneca is concerned about?
What does living even mean for us?
In the context of anxiety recovery, we can interpret “living” as the act of engaging with the things that we want to do. Moving toward and embracing the things that matter and hold value to us without regard to fear or anxiety. In an anxious state this represents a challenge. Doing “normal” things at a “normal” pace will induce discomfort, so often the anxious person will choose to retreat from these challenges. Remaining anxiously busy - rather than actually living - becomes the default.
Seneca recognizes this universal human challenge when he tells us that living is the hardest thing to learn. If you are stuck in a state of anxious busyness, longing to actually live your life, do not despair. You are not alone. Your predicament does not indicate that you are broken or unfixable. You are delightfully human in this respect. For the anxious person, the challenge of learning to live may be more literal and basic in its actions. But at its core is the same challenge we all face from time to time throughout our lives.
Take a few minutes today to consider how you may be choosing anxious busyness over living. What does that look like in your life? What would living look like in comparison? What steps can you take - however small to start - that can start to move you from busy to alive?
Tomorrow we’ll talk about the idea of “meditating against the grain.”