In an Opinion article in the New York Times published a couple years ago the writer highlighted the “busy trap” that many of us find ourselves in. He explains an epiphany that another friend had after leaving the trap, “What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment.” And then he makes a bold claim, “It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.” Being and staying busy is an odd feature of modern life. We may not all be working such ridiculous hours; in fact, more than likely, we oscillate between hustling to and from various commitments and wasting enormous amounts of time on TV, Internet, and smartphones. Why such extremes? It appears that a desire deep within us pushes us to this busy behavior, and when we have had too much we try to numb this desire. But there is another way.
In the weird paradox that is modern day living we spend large amounts of time working and huge amounts of time entertaining ourselves. I mean HUGE amounts of time. Each day the average American watches 5 hours of tv, spends an hour on the internet (non-work related), an hour and seven minutes on their smartphone, and two hours and 46 minutes listening to the radio. That amounts to just under 10 hours a day on items to entertain us.
This paradox may seem impossible to live out, but I am capable of doing it most days. As I write this piece, or as I do almost any type of work, it takes all that is within me to not surf the web, check Facebook, read an article about something that interests me, and avoid videos on some sports event. I’m anxious that my writing will be bad and won’t be worth anyone’s time, and so instead of feeling that anxiety I try to numb myself with distractions. This creates more anxiety as I do not make any progress on the work I am actually supposed to be doing.
We both love and hate busyness. On one hand, as the NYT article suggests, “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.” Also many of us have experienced the satisfaction that has come from being immersed in a cause, or task. And yet, we hate being busy. I cannot imagine a person who loves to be on the go so often that they cannot develop any meaningful relationships, whether that is with a spouse, child, or friend. What are we to do?
The Psalmist declares, “You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.” That sums up our present situation pretty well. We are thirsting for something that is not available in our land, and we are frantically looking everywhere for the substance for which our soul truly longs.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, Life Together, suggests a solution, which is putting prayer and work together. “Only where each (prayer and work) receives its own specific due will it become clear that both belong inseparably together.” Bonhoeffer believes that work can only truly be done “where a person forgets himself in a cause, in reality, the task.” This is one way that God purifies the person from self-centeredness and draws one to God. As we are immersed in our work we discover God behind and through our daily labors, so that our very work is a prayer to God and communion with him as well. This is the very longing of our soul. This is why the poet David Whyte is correct in saying, “The antidote to exhaustion is not rest, but wholeheartedness,” because where we can be given wholeheartedly into a work or labor, it is there that we encounter God.