The Idol of Busyness

By Karl Dahlfred
If you ask many people today “How are you doing?,” it is extremely common to get an answer along the lines of “I’m really busy.” It seems that everybody is busy. Everybody is tired. In fact, it is almost expected that people will be busy and that any answer other than “I’m really busy” is unacceptable.
But is it socially acceptable to NOT be busy?
Imagine with me that someone asks you, “How are you doing?” and you reply, “I’m doing well. I don’t have a lot going on.” Is that an acceptable answer? If you answer like that, will people think you are lazy? If we don’t claim to be busy, will people think we have no ambition and no goals in life?
There is an old proverb that says, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” but it seems that today, “Busyness is next to godliness.” Being busy is held up as a badge of spirituality. Spirituality is equated with activity. The more active we are, doing more things, fulfilling more obligations, then the more diligent, faithful and spiritual we must be. Right?
It seems that everyone feels like they are “too busy,” but no one is willing to lay aside any of the activities they are doing. We MUST keep our schedules (and our kids’ schedules) full of every profitable activity imaginable. If we don’t, then we are not living up to our potential and not fulfilling God’s call on our life. We are not faithful.
But is it true? MUST we be busy?
When we pack every moment of our lives with some kind of activity (and fill in all the extra spaces with social media), we end up feeling stressed, tired and unable to take on anything more. We have no margin in our lives to deal with the unexpected, to love other people as we ought or to reflect on what we are doing or why we are doing it.
When we lack empty space in our calendars and in our minds, we feel unable to do any more than we are doing and push people and things of importance away simply because we cannot imagine adding any more to our lives that we already have. We need unplanned and unscheduled time in our lives in order to make the most of the things that we are doing, to have the energy to do them, and to handle the unexpected (sick child, broken car, relational blowout etc.) without having a nervous breakdown.
I really treasure the unscheduled time in my calendar because that is when I can work on the multiple longer-term projects on my desk(top) that are important but not urgent. As a Christian, I need unhurried, uninterrupted time to read and reflect on scripture, pray and send short notes to people to let them know I am praying for them. It is a beautiful thing to look at my calendar and see few to no appointments for the week.
With this in mind, I sometimes become afraid when people ask me, “What do you have going on next week?” because this is undoubtedly the lead-in to a request to do something. If I don’t truly have a week packed with appointments, meetings, and classes to teach (or prepare for), then it feels disingenuous to say, “I am really busy” as a way of deflecting the request for my time that is sure to come. However, if I say “not a lot,” then I will look like an unhelpful jerk if I refuse the person’s request because I want to work on those long-term projects instead.
My solution is this: when someone asks, “What do you have going on this week?” I have developed a coping mechanism to discover what they want before I reveal my hand. “Why? What’s going on?” I reply. Realizing that I have called their bluff, the other person usually reveals their real request, which I can then accept or reject without the other person being unhappy that I did not use the last remaining free time in my schedule to fill their request. Refusing requests with phrases like, “I’m not sure that will work” or “That would be difficult” often suffice to protect the margin in my life and to guard my sanity.
Busy times are sure to come because that is the nature of life. But we don’t have to be busy all the time. It is not healthy to be busy all the time because we need those breaks and unplanned times to maintain joy and peace in our lives. God created the Sabbath because we need one day in seven to worship, and also to rest from our regular work. Our bodies need a daily cycle of wakefulness and sleep to stay in balance. Our mind needs a balance of engaging, stimulating activity and uncluttered down time and slow plodding away at a single task. Boredom can be a blessing in disguise. The Bible calls us to “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:16) but that doesn’t mean that we need to fill every moment with busy activity. It is okay to not be busy.
This post originally appeared on Karl’s blog, Gleanings from the Field.

Karl Dahlfred

Karl and his wife Sun did church planting ministry in Central Thailand during their first missionary term and then moved to Bangkok where Karl taught at Bangkok Bible Seminary, assisted with editing and translation of Thai Christian books at Kanok Bannasan (OMF Publishers Thailand) and was involved with Grace City Bangkok Church. Karl is now pursuing PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh. He and Sun have three children, Joshua, Caitlin and John.

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