I‘m so busy. You’re so busy. We’re all so busy. We’re so busy that we can’t possibly fit one more thing into our schedules, or one more relationship into our lives. That’s life in North America, or perhaps just life in the twenty-first century. In an article in the New York Times, Tim Kreider says that we all have a stock response: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” It may be a stock response, but it’s not a particularly good one.
I’ve noticed something in my own life that I find both interesting and disturbing. It’s this: People keep telling me how busy I am. People assume it. It might be because they just can’t imagine anyone being anything but busy. Or maybe it’s because I am giving off those busy vibes, somehow convincing people that I have way too much to do and way too little time to do it. I receive phone calls that say, “I know you’re so busy, and I’m sorry for taking more of your time.” I receive emails that say, “I’m so sorry for asking you this.” I even feel like I need to look and act busy since otherwise people may start to think I’m lazy. Are those the only options we’ve got: busy or lazy?
Here’s the thing: I don’t consider myself busy. When I speak at an event and do a question and answer session, I am often asked something like this: “How do you do all that you do?” My answer is usually something along these lines: “I actually don’t do all that much and live at quite a relaxed pace. This is because I’ve been deliberate in eliminating everything but the few things I want to give attention to: Family, church (both as a member and a pastor), friends and writing. What you see me do is just about all I do!” And that’s it. There just isn’t a lot more to my life than that. If my life is pie-shaped, then each of these things gets a slice of the pie and there just isn’t much left over at the end. I am okay with that. I don’t need time for much else.
This is not to say that I go through life free from all anxiety and without the stress of approaching deadlines. Neither does it mean that I spend my days surfing the web and chatting mindlessly on the phone. Not at all. I do my best to work hard in the times that I’ve set aside to work. I even measure my use of time every now and again to see where I am using time well and where I am frittering it away. I do my best to be fully present with my family in those times that I’ve dedicated to them. The same is true of friends and neighbors. I block off time to write and try to fill that time with as many words and as many ideas as possible. This is the ideal, though it is so difficult to maintain. One thing constantly wants to intrude on the other, so work times infringes upon family time and writing time falls into devotional time. But when I’m at my best, life is structured and life just isn’t busy.
Kreider makes an interesting point:
Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
There are spiritual dimensions to busyness. There are spiritual consequences. Kreider says, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” There is truth in this. We can feel reassured by busyness and strangely comforted by it, even as it saps us of all strength and keeps us from feeling as if we are succeeding at even one of our responsibilities.
There is a cost to busyness, but there is a more subtle cost to being perceived as busy. When people believe that I’m busy, they also believe that I am unapproachable. This is what has disturbed me the most. People at church may want or need some of my time and attention, but because they perceive me as being so busy, they may be afraid or embarrassed to ask for it. My kids may want some of my time but believe that dad is too busy for them. This is what disturbs me most, that my busyness, or the perception of busyness, makes me less effective in the areas in which I want to do well. That cost is too high to tolerate. So let me say it again, primarily to reassure myself: I’m not busy. I have all the time I need to accomplish the things the Lord has called me to.
Note: This is an updated version of an article first published a couple of years ago.