Getting Down to Busyness

"How are you doing?"  

What's your knee-jerk response to this question? In past years, mine was, "good." Then, to avoid censure from crusading grammarians, I began to say "well." But recently, I've found myself uttering these words: "I'm busy!"

And I know I'm not alone. Many people respond this way.

Why is that? Why do these words almost involuntarily spill from our mouths?

There are a few possible explanations. It may be that we are, in fact, busy. Most people over the age of 11 have more than enough on their plates (and a great number of children under 11 have parents eager to fill their plates). Impending deadlines, commitments, are projects loom over us. And if we aren't diligent, they lord over us like tyrants. We say we're busy because it's true. Of course we're busy! We all have limited time and seemingly unlimited demands. But why do we want people to perceive us in this particularly way? I'll speak for myself: I want people to think I'm busy. 

Meredith Fineman recently wrote a delightful rant against busyness (in the Harvard Business Review, no less).  Commenting on our compulsion towards busyness, she says,

So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero...What you’re trying to say with these responses is: I’m busier, more in-demand, more successful.

Recasting her insight in theological grammar, we might say that Westerners tend to view busyness as a form of righteousness. In other words, we find ultimate weight, identity, and significance in our productivity level, or in the number of hours we log, or in the "atta-girls" or "atta-boys"  we receive from our superiors. I find perverse joy in telling people about a particularly busy week, even while outwardly lamenting how difficult it was. Busyness can become a functional savior; an idol that rescues us from insignificance and worthlessness. But every idol demands sacrifices. Fineman mentions some of these: 

To assume that being “busy” (at this point it has totally lost its meaning) is cool, or brag-worthy, or tweetable, is ridiculous. By lobbing these brags, endlessly puffing our shoulders about how “up to my neck” we are, we’re missing out on important connections with family and friends, as well as personal time. In addition to having entire conversations about how busy we are, we fail to share feelings with friends and family, ask about important matters, and realize that the “busy” is something that can be put on hold for a little while.

I don't want to downplay the importance of hard work. In fact, anyone who thinks hard labor is unspiritual has overlooked a great deal of Scripture (e.g. Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15, Proverbs 6, Isaiah 65-66, and the books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians). I also realize that many of us have very demanding jobs. I won't tell you to shirk legitimate work responsibilities.

But I will say that the activities we busy ourselves with reveal our priorities. Thus busyness is not neutral; it is fueled by assumptions, and driven by ideals. Does our busyness further the kingdom of God? Does it enable us to be better disciples, spouses, church members, neighbors, citizens, children, parents, missionaries, and friends? Do we have parameters around our busyness? Do we have rhythms of rest and play and worship, in addition to work? And do we work for rest, or from rest? Can we be ok with ourselves at the end of a day that is not entirely productive? These are the questions I've been chewing on.