Down with busyness, up with purposeful engagement!

I have been contemplating the difference between the word “busy” and what an appropriate substitute for that word might be. I am getting increasingly annoyed when I hear myself and others complain about how busy we are and wonder if this sentiment isn’t sinful at its core. Busyness is a major modern plague of our time, but I am guessing that it has always been around. The idea of busyness relates to our sense of worth and may be a pride issue for many of us. The busier we are, the more important we must be. Not being busy could cause some of us to lose our job or demonstrate a lack of success. Or if we are not busy as a retiree we think that others may believe that we are irrelevant – we are not contributing anything to life, or that life is passing us by – we have nothing to offer and no one is interested in us.

There are many reasons for busyness and we may well be busier than ever before.

  1. Our consumption has increased and our increased consumption increases our busyness. We have more things we want – which requires purchasing at the best possible price (more research and shopping time), finding a place to store it (no wonder that storage, as an industry, is bigger than Hollywood), managing its maintenance (do you have a monthly schedule of all your items to maintain, oil, clean?), and disposing of it eventually (do you take out an item for every item you take into your house?).
  2. We have more choices, more options for everything, forcing us to take more time with research and decision-making. We don’t just grab a box of laundry detergent – we get the organic, scent-free, 3x concentrated kind that has special cleaning powers through the time-released elements in the cleaning cycle! Every choice we make now contains several mini-choices – so that even a run to the store for a few items can be taxing. We simply have more options in almost every area – health care, finance, education, church, leisure, etc. Additionally when we make choices, we may be concerned that we are missing out what we have not chosen – economists call this opportunity cost.
  3. We have more opportunities to communicate with a wider circle of friends than ever before – we are global now! Yet I notice in the Christmas cards we are getting this year that we are getting more pictures than family letters – are people too busy to write, or have too many cards to send out?
  4. We have more programs, ministries, small groups, mission trips, service opportunities and ways to get involved – a great thing, but one that sets us up for busyness … and guilt if we don’t get involved (maybe because we are trying to be less busy!)
  5. We are more aware of research on good parenting, being a good friend, being a good spouse, etc. and so work harder at these things – a good thing, but one that may also make us busier.
  6. Our personal and professional lives are constantly intermixed – with improved communication we are frequently jumping back and forth between our personal and professional worlds. We are more acutely aware every minute of what is going on in the lives of all those around us, whereas we used to know about things on a monthly or yearly basis. Our expectations for instant knowledge have increased in all spheres.
  7. Our culture winks at workaholism even while the faith formation research states that our children feel ever more abandoned during their growing up years. A deadly cousin I call “sportsaholism” afflicts families who add busyness on their weekends through club sports – in the process not only destroying Sabbath, but impacting family finances and time for worship.

I am not going to suggest that we disengage from life because that is not realistic or helpful. I am going to suggest that we consider the differences between the words busy and engaged. I believe that God has wired us to be creatures who are engaged and that we find satisfaction when we engage with His world and the creatures he has created. We are happiest when we are engaged. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, has suggested that when we balance anxiety and boredom we achieve a state of “flow” – that wonderful feeling when we are so engaged in our work that time ceases to be a factor. We may even ignore emails and phone calls during this time! When we are in “flow” we experience the joy of creativity, discovery, contemplation, and a sense of rightness – I believe this is a foretaste of heaven and a gift in that there is a temporal suspension that lifts us above our busyness. We find joy in being fruitful, not just busy.

Was Jesus busy or engaged? He was always about his Father’s work, but demonstrated the kind of balance we need. When we think we have a hard time with priorities, we need to consider how Jesus, who certainly was aware of the needs of the crowds and the press of the people, was able to engage deeply and be about what was really important. As one anonymous author suggests, perhaps BUSY is really an acronym for Being Under Satan’s Yoke. Jesus continually resisted the urging to do it all – consider the temptation of Satan at the beginning of his ministry, the passages about the multitudes and their needs for healing, the amounts of time he spent in prayer and solitude, his words to Mary and Martha, and then the questions we might raise of “why only three years of ministry?” and “why did he come when he did and not in today’s era of global communications?”

This busyness issue is really a large struggle in many of our lives and one that we must battle. Maybe some of these things will help a bit:

  1. Please for starters make Sunday a day of media rest – turn off your computer and leave it off for the day. Please don’t write me on Sunday re: any work thoughts!
  2. Read this classic poem by Wendell Berry “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” – do things that don’t compute, can’t be measured, and have no immediate value.
  3. Watch this compelling Youtube by Scott Stratton given at the TEDxOakville entitled Keep Going Until We Stop.
  4. Rent the movie “Young at Heart” – the documentary movie of a senior singing group that sings an unusual and unexpected repertoire such as Coldplay and Hendrix, but as bodies fail, demonstrate a focus and joy in using their gifts to uplift others.
  5. Draw distinctions in your life between what is busyness and what is worthy engagement. Use the questions “Will this matter in five years?” and “In a hundred years who will know the difference?” to help you do the sorting.

May the peace of Christ which passes all understanding rule your hearts and minds this wonderful season of celebration – let’s rebel against busyness and embrace being engaged in the right stuff!


Filed under Biblical worldview, change, devotional, resources, stewardship, use of time

2 responses to “Down with busyness, up with purposeful engagement!

  1. Purposeful action is indeed the answer…and, perhaps, the ability to say, no.

  2. Insightful as always, Dan! :-) Thanks for including the bit from Flow–I think people would benefit from reading a little Csikszentmihalyi and reflecting on how his ideas would look in their classroom practices…

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