The Vanity of Busyness

“And what will I myself be at that hour, when I am only myself and nothing else? My whole life long I have been nothing but the ordinary routine, all business and activity, a desert filled with empty sound and meaningless fury. But when the heavy weight of death one day presses down upon my life and squeezes the true and lasting content out of all of those many days and long years, what will be the final yield?”

-Karl Rahner 

If you were asked what was the biggest spiritual hinderance of your particular community, how would you respond? Where I live in northern Indiana people often will mention materialism and the relatively comfortable lives we live in the United States. Others may bring up the current political polarization, particularly of Evangelical Christians, that is dividing many churches. A lack of solid teaching and discipleship are other ideas that are brought up. While each of these suggestions is a genuine concern, there is another hinderance that I believe is subtly sabotaging the spiritual lives of thousands of Christians: busyness. 

This was pressed home to me recently by a conversation I had with a one of my students in the middle school where I teach science. She related to me how she was almost never at home before 10:00 at night due to her involvement in several after school groups. She also had competitions on the weekend and had to travel with the family to watch her brother’s hockey games. She was gone every weekend, and rarely home during the week. What really struck me was when she related to me how her youth group leaders were emphasizing that God should be the first priority in her life but she felt her parents emphasized school. As I listened to her I sensed a young person who was struggling with determining what her priorities should be, and one who never felt she could really truly be ‘at home’ for any length of time. Her life was busy with worthwhile activities, yet I felt there was a strain being placed on her. Over the years I have heard enough stories like this to realize that her story is not unique, but rather closer to the norm. 

This is a constant topic of conversation in the leadership groups I serve on in my church. We have noted that people are so busy with other activities that it is hard to find enough volunteers, especially to take on time consuming leadership responsibilities. Beyond volunteering, we have wondered what other impact the excessive busyness of our culture has on our spiritual lives. While very few of the activities people are engaging in are in any way wrong or harmful, the question of priorities is often raised. Are we truly seeking first the Kingdom? Answering that question requires us to examine our underlying motivations that drive our daily choices.

Why are we so busy?  What is it that drives us to fill our days and weeks with never ending activity? I wonder if we maintain our busy lifestyles so we can avoid listening to certain voices within us. Perhaps the voice of loneliness, or the voice of restless dissatisfaction with our occupation and relationships. Or maybe it is that quiet, nagging voice that longs for a deeper meaning to life that we have never found. All of these voices come bubbling to the surface as soon as we slow down for any length of time. It is often easier to drown them in activity. 

In contrast, few see busyness as a problem. Nearly everyone recognizes that turning to drugs or alcohol is an unhealthy coping mechanism; but busyness, however, is just a way of life, one that we embrace wholeheartedly here in the United States. We are a society that values productivity to the point where often view our self worth in terms of what we have accomplished; though we often confuse busyness with true productivity. 

Part of our busyness is driven by our desire to ‘have a life’. I hear that phrase often, but what do we mean when we say it? What are we looking for? I would argue we are seeking to find an end to our restless dissatisfaction with the normal routine of life, a longing for a place and time when we can ‘be ourselves’, free of the demands of school, work and our daily routine. This ‘life’ we desire is something we try find find in entertainment, hobbies, or social activity. As I write this I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s words

” Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” 

Joy may be the business of Heaven, but prolonging the truancy is the business of America. We fill our days and weeks with constant activity so we can ‘have a life’ when the life we truly seek is one that we cannot find in this world, at least not in full. We are willing to abandon responsibilities to work and family in order to pursue our personal longings and desires. We seek to be entertained as often as possible, as long as someone else is willing put in the work so we can enjoy the show. All of this fills our lives with activity; none of it satisfies us in the deep recesses of our being. 

As I think over this I don’t believe the solution is merely to do less; rather we need to see our activities in the light of Heaven. It is not just to reprioritize our lives; it is to discover a deeper level of meaning in what we do each day. At the beginning of this post I quoted from a Karl Rahner selection I found in “Spiritual Classics” edited by Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin. Throughout this selection Rahner struggles with the feeling that the humdrum of everyday routine and busyness of his life was “filled with everything else but You”. Rahner, a theologian and priest, found that even performing sacred rituals had the “corrosive dust of this spirit of routine”. Gradually he came to see that the path to God was through his daily routine, not in spite of it.

“That’s why I now see clearly that, if there is any path at all on which I can approach You, it must lead through the very middle of my ordinary daily life. If I should try to flee to you any other way, I’d actually be leaving myself behind, and that, aside from being quite impossible, would accomplish nothing at all.” 

Though it is impossible, and thought is accomplishes nothing at all, fleeing from ordinary life is what most of us do. Many do not perceive this as having a spiritual component, but I believe at it’s heart our busyness is reflective of our inability to find deeper meaning in our daily lives. Written thousands of years ago, the words of Ecclesiastes resonate with startling relevance to our modern society:

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desire; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

Ecclesiastes 2: 10-11

In my upcoming posts I want to examine in more detail how we can find meaning in the ordinariness of our daily lives.


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Spiritual Classics
By HarperOne

St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, Fredrick Buechner, Evelyn Underhill, A.W. Tozer, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas More, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amy Carmichael, Simone Weil, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hildegard of Bingen, John Milton, Dorothy Day, Leo Tolstoy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and more.

From nearly two thousand years of Christian writing comes Spiritual Classics, fifty-two selections complete with a profile of each author, meditations for group and individual use, discussion questions and exercises, and a personal reflection by Richard Foster on each selection. Editors Richard Foster and Emilie Griffith also offer recommendations for further guided reading and exploration.

2 thoughts on “The Vanity of Busyness”

  1. Busyness is an area I’m always challenged with in my life. I appreciated this perspective and I’ve been thinking about your thought “I believe at it’s heart our busyness is reflective of our inability to find deeper meaning in our daily lives.”

    Like

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