Not Busier Than Thou

I read an intriguing article in the latest New Yorker titled “No Time: How Did We Get So Busy?” by Elizabeth Kolbert in which the phrase “busier than thou” is used to describe the warped attitude of many people today, thus the title of this post. Kolbert quotes several researchers who have endeavored to get to the bottom of busyness, including one Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University.

As Kolbert highlights, “Stiglitz argues that people’s choices are molded by society and, over time, become self-reinforcing. We ‘learn how to consume by consuming,’ he writes, and how to ‘enjoy leisure by enjoying leisure.’ In support of this position, Stiglitz cites the contrasting experiences of Europeans and Americans. In the 1970s, the British and the French put in just as many hours at work as Americans. But then the Europeans began trading income for leisure” [emphasis mine].

And she continues: “The average employed American now works roughly 140 hours more per year than the average Englishman and 300 hours more than the average Frenchman. Current French law mandates that workers get 30 paid vacation days per year, British law 28; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero. Stiglitz predicts that Europeans will further reduce their working hours and become even more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become such masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours and to buy more stuff.”

I love the lesson here of trading income for leisure. Personally, my wife and I make it a point to live more like Europeans by consciously limiting our consumption in favor of enriching experiences. It doesn’t hurt that my wife happens to work for a progressive-minded organization where she gets five weeks of vacation but we embraced such a lifestyle long before she got a job with them. We believe the key is to not own much stuff that needs financing and maintaining so we are free to live on our terms instead of some lenders’. And we prefer being “not busier than thou,” thank you very much.

To Be or Not To Be

In the immortal words of William Shakespeare, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” I am a big believer in the power of living in the present and the only way to do that is to focus more on being than doing. Busyness has an insidious way of weaving itself into our lives to the point that we forget there is another, better way to live. Believe it or not, each of us has the power to either accept or reject the encroachment of busyness in our lives.

How? You may ask. By identifying the absolute essentials in our lives and structuring our time around them. If you are like most people, you’d say you value your faith, family and friends, but how you spend your time tells the tale. For example, is church attendance or other faith centric fellowship a given in your life? If not you may need to examine how vital faith is to you. We often give lip service to our beliefs but our lives don’t lie.

I mention faith as a foundation because I have found it indispensible to living a life centered on being versus doing. And it is important to point out that I am not talking about religious striving to become a better person. The type of faith I mean is one that rests in what God has done for us through Christ and ceases from senseless activity. Many people apparently believe that “busier is better” judging by their crammed calendars but racing against the clock is a fool’s errand.

Years ago I spoke at a church about the need for believers to “work smarter, not harder” and I will never forget the look on the pastors’ faces. It was as if I spoke a foreign language, one that they simply could not comprehend. It was a truth they failed to identify with. Time has proven the value of the statement in my life and they have suffered the consequences of not heeding it. As I’ve said before, God made us human beings, not human doings. His name is I AM and we are created in his image. To be, that is the answer.

The Cost of Busyness

Even before moving to Nantucket to write my “Waldenesque guidebook to simpler living,” as I am describing it, I recalled that Henry David Thoreau had spoken at the local library here called the Atheneum. As it turns out, it was on December 28, 1854, the same year that Walden was published, and my research indicates that Thoreau typically charged enough for such lectures to cover his annual expenditures in one speech.

According to the January 1, 1855 edition of the Nantucket Inquirer, “A large audience assembled to listen to the man who has rendered himself notorious by living, as his book asserts, in the woods, at an expense of about sixty dollars per year, in order that he might there hold free communion with Nature, and test for himself the happiness of a life without manual labor or conventional restraints.”

Thoreau is reported to have opened his lecture by saying, “I will only lecture on what I think, not for the sake of saying pleasant things. I wish to give you a strong dose of myself. You have sent for me, and will pay me, and you shall have me, even if I bore you beyond all precedent.” Afterward, the Nantucket Inquirer noted, “His lecture may have been desultory and marked by simplicity of manner, but not by paucity of ideas.”

Thoreau expounded his thoughts by adding, “I shall take for my text these words, ‘What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?’ This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I cannot buy a blank book to write thoughts in but it is ruled for dollars and cents.” Of course, it was none other than Jesus Christ himself who originally posed the question, as recorded in Mark 8:36, and we would do well to count the cost of all our “busyness.”

The Productivity Myth

One of my favorite observations about the human race is that all too often we strive to live up to our name and so it is important to remind ourselves that God created us as human beings not human doings. The trouble with interpreting our lives merely in light of how much we achieve is that we pressure ourselves into thinking that our value lies solely in what we do rather than in who we are. Indeed, some people go so far as to commit suicide once convinced that they simply don’t measure up to society’s standards, however arbitrary and capricious.

Fueling the fire of disillusionment is the prevailing philosophy that more is better or what I call “the productivity myth.” Along with the Industrial Revolution came the era of intrusive time management studies and other methods for extracting maximum output from workers in an effort to increase the overall productivity of mass machinery and manufacturers. The only problem with that, of course, is that man was never meant to function as a machine, and when he does his soul shrivels up in the process.

I recently read an excellent summary of this very phenomenon in the book The Lonely American by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz: “The cult of busyness may be fueled by current customs and technology, but it rests on three sturdy pillars of American life: Calvinism, capitalism, and competitiveness. From Calvinism comes faith that God is smiling on those who achieve material success. From capitalism comes a perpetual hope (realized often enough) that hard work and new ideas will be rewarded. From a reverence for the competitive spirit comes a genuine admiration for winners. These three intertwined ideas have helped create previously unimagined prosperity. They also invite us to try harder, to work longer, to give back (collectively) hundreds of millions of vacation hours each year, to treat each and every day as another day to succeed.”

The Gift of Rest

About a month ago, a friend of ours lent my wife and I the use of her beach cottage. It was the second time we’d had the pleasure of visiting it, with the other time being about three years ago, and both times we’ve come away relaxed and refreshed. Upon closer reflection, I think it is safe to say that what our friend gave us was the gift of rest.

The nondescript cottage is a simple bungalow located just steps from the beach behind some windswept sand dunes so the surf beckoned for us to come and stroll along its shore. Yet aside from long walks on the beach, we passed our time peacefully ensconced within its shabby chic interior with candlelight, soothing music and good books.

As I reflect upon the time spent at our friend’s beach cottage, I am reminded of Jesus’ admonition to “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while.” It could be said that if we don’t “come apart” in order to rest that we will simply “come apart.” In other words, if we aren’t willing to periodically rest from our busyness and activity, then we may prematurely enter that place of perpetual rest, the cemetery.

Coping With Busyness

Contrary to popular opinion, busyness is not next to godliness. While it threatens to dupe us into believing that we are invaluable, graveyards are full of so-called irreplaceable people. We all may be busy but we can cope with busyness by prioritizing our personal and professional lives according to the principles outlined in Scripture.

“Everything is permissible for me,” wrote the apostle Paul, “but not everything is beneficial.” The truth is that there is an awful lot that we could do but it is often a matter of whether or not we should do it. After all is said and done, we want to be able to say “no” to good ideas in order to pursue God ideas. Saying “no” to the rest enables us to say “yes” to the best that God has for us.

I read a card the other day that captures the attitude of many: “Jesus is coming, look busy.” It’d be funny if it weren’t for the fact that many of us act like that. But the good news is that Jesus came to reveal a better way and reminded us: “I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls.”

Part of the trouble with living in our fast-paced times is that often we allow the busyness of life to choke out our dreams and destinies, not to mention our purposes and passions. Sadly, many of us settle for being an echo of someone else instead of the unique voice that God created us to be. It is helpful to remember that the concert we are called to play cannot be performed if we only copy other people’s music.

Living Counterclockwise Too

Part of living counterclockwise is realizing what an artificial reality time actually is. It is ironic that the clock was created by medieval monks to regulate the routine of daily devotions at the monasteries. And the unintended consequence of the innovation was that the very contraption designed to draw people toward the divine instead became the means used to manipulate life as we know it. In other words, it could be said that religion helped create the concept of time as measured by a clock.

What is interesting is that there are actually two types of time. One type is described by the Greek word chronos (human time) and it refers to time as measured in minutes by a clock. The other is described by the Greek word kairos (divine time) and it refers to the type of moments that are infused with meaning and cannot be conveniently measured.

Clocks may be valuable tools for chronicling the passage of time, but they are meant to be our servants not our masters. To quote the songwriter James Taylor, “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” Life is not about trying to cram even more activity into an already busy lifestyle. It is designed to be a stroll with Jesus along the sands of time until time is no more.

It is helpful to meditate on Acts 17:26, a powerful scripture from The Message about our relationship to time: “God made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God.” All too often, the human race tries desperately to live up to its name. Do yourself a favor: start to think about time from an eternal perspective and enjoy the journey from here to eternity!

Living Counterclockwise

One of my favorite scriptures in the Bible is the passage of Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

While we don’t often think of it this way, I am convinced that one of the reasons that Jesus Christ came to earth was to introduce us to a radical way of relating to time. Notice in the passage above that Jesus said the way to learn the unforced rhythms of grace is “to walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it.”

One of the amazing things about the life of Jesus as recorded in Scripture is that you never see Him in a hurry. Even though Jesus is the Son of God and has existed for all of eternity, as a human He never yielded to the tyranny of time. Rather than succumb to peer pressure, even from His parents, He was quick to point out that He was not ruled by time.

The ultimate example of pacing oneself through life was Jesus. He knew He only had a limited time here on earth during which to accomplish His mission, yet He daily resisted the temptation to sacrifice the important for the urgent. If He could lay aside peripheral activities for the sake of a prioritized agenda, surely we can do so ourselves.