In Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’sbeloved tale, Le Petit Prince, the little prince travels from his own planet of three volcanoes, a small sheep, and a flower in order to see what lies beyond. On the fourth planet in his journey, he comes across a red-faced businessman who rejects his attempts at conversation with a brusque, “I have so much work to do! I’m a serious man. I can’t be bothered with trifles!”1
In just a few lines, it seems that the ‘serious man’ captures the watchword that increasingly plagues our day: I’m busy. In recent years, being busy appears to have become a status symbol of our time. And interestingly, it seems that simply beingbusy, not what we are busy about, has become the focus. But is it really enough to be busy? Not according to Henry David Thoreau, who posits:
It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The real question is: What are we busy about?2
What are we busy about, indeed. This can become difficult to answer, especially when considering the life of a college student who has the opportunity to construct a life by selecting from an endless array of service projects, clubs, sports, research opportunities, cultural events, etc., all while juggling school, relationships, and work, only finding small windows of time to sleep and eat. The world is full of wonderful and worthwhile endeavors—and the more we can do, the better we sometimes feel.
But even in the pursuit of worthy endeavors, are we missing other things—things that the nature of our busy lives does not allow us to see?
After his encounter with the busy man, the little prince, bewildered, continues on to earth where he is met with a similar response from a stranded pilot fixing his damaged plane: “I’m busy here with something serious!”
To this, the little prince frustratedly replies,
“I know a planet inhabited by a red-faced gentleman. He’s never smelled a flower. He’s never looked at a star. He’s never loved anyone. He’s never done anything except add up numbers. And all day long he says over and over, just like you, ‘I’m a serious man! I’m a serious man!’ And that puffs him up with pride. But he’s not a man at all—he’s a mushroom!”
It is notable that the precocious little prince declares that the red-faced gentleman is ‘not a man’. Perhaps the busy man is not a man because he has lost the qualities that make him human.
Is there a chance that in our efforts to be busy, we are losing our humanity? Is it possible that choosing to reject the trap of busyness is where connection to our true humanity can be found?
If we consider the little prince’s exclamations of what the red-faced man is not doing, which make him not a man, we find criteria of what it means to be human to the little prince. Human beings smell flowers. Human beings look at stars. Human beings love other people; and they live instead of just ‘adding up numbers.’
When was the last time we truly attempted to become the people we needed when we were younger? When was the last time we fought for real connection, addressed matters of the heart? Or took the time to sit with emotion—to actually acknowledge feelings like shame, sorrow, or joy rather than brushing them off as distractions?
Perhaps it is through “busyness” that we are trying to escape our humanness. By piling in more of the good, we seek refuge from our doubts, worries, frailties, fears—even our joy, peace, and happiness. We eliminate moments of humanness in order to avoid discomfort and pain. In pushing ourselves to act like machines, it seems that we may harbor a subconscious hope to become them. However, we must keep in mind that we also have the ability to consciously want and choose to be more human.
The little prince closes his response to the pilot with, “If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that’s enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, ‘My flower’s up there somewhere…’ But if the sheep eats the flower, then for him it’s as if, suddenly, all the stars went out. And that isn’t important?”
It is important. The flower is important. The sheep is important.And in loving them, in choosing to love them rather than succumb to busyness, the little prince lives.
May we all remember, in the midst of busy things, that somewhere there is a flower and a sheep and a little prince. And that in all of our busyness, there are those things that truly matter.
This post was written by Moe Graviet, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.
 De Saint-Exupéry, Atoine. The Little Prince.Trans. by Richard Howard.Mariner Books, 2000.
 Thoreau, Henry David. “Thoreau.” Monadnock Valley Press. http://monadnock.net/thoreau/blake.html The original quote I draw from is found in Thoreau’s letter to his friend, Blake, dated Nov. 16, 1857: “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”