Have you ever been to one of those dinner parties where people started comparing weekly schedules? At first, it feels like venting and commiserating, and sometimes it’s no more than that. But occasionally the conversation takes a turn into competitive territory, drifting into a veiled one-upsmanship in which each person tries to prove that he or she is the busiest person in the room. This modern phenomenon seems contradictory at first, because don’t we hate being too busy? Don’t we complain about being spread thin, like Bilbo Baggins’s butter scraped over too much bread? Don’t we bemoan our calendars cluttered with tiny handwriting? Don’t we subscribe to Real Simple magazine?
I used to be one of those pretend whiners. From 2009 to 2012, I usually qualified for the finals of any Busy-ness competition. During those years, I was working full time, going to grad school at night, working another part-time job to pay for grad school, helping teach Sunday School, speaking at women’s events at church, and fulfilling extra-curricular obligations at school. I was the Queen of Busy.
After I graduated, Tim and I moved to California so he could attend seminary, and I dropped down to just one job. In one sense, it was incredibly freeing. I had time to read, blog, exercise, watch movies, cook elaborate meals, and go to the beach. In another sense, I felt like my net worth had declined. I had to stay humbly quiet during schedule-comparing conversations. When people asked if I was free for an event, I’d pull out my phone and check my calendar even if I knew it was blank, because it would be embarrassing to have a schedule that open. Over the past few years, my weeks have slowly filled back up as I’ve made friends and gotten more involved at work and church. But I was given the gift of time and space to reflect on why being less busy made me feel less valuable.
Being excessively busy made me feel accepted, needed, and wanted. My busy-ness meant that I was important. It meant that my life felt full. My busy-ness was where I found my identity. It was my idol.
I see some of my students succumbing to the same siren call. As young children, they’re shuttled from school to karate to piano lessons to dance lessons to soccer practice. As teens, they attempt to balance a demanding academic load, sports, work, volunteering, and chores. Some of them don’t get a chance to start their homework until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. They’re overcommitted and exhausted and stressed out, but they keep plugging away because they believe what their parents have unconsciously modeled for them: people of worth must sacrifice their lives at the altar of the god Busy-ness.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote, “So long as man remains free, he strives for nothing so incessantly and painfully as to find some one to worship.” John Calvin put it more succinctly: our hearts are idol factories. Worship of the busy life is the trend du jour in America (and I suspect in other countries as well). Busy-ness is one of the more demanding gods in the modern pantheon, because the sacrifices it requires are so great. Over-commitment often means forfeiting close personal relationships that can only be forged and maintained through long, deep conversation. It sometimes means trading real influence for the appearance of influence. It usually means giving up quality for quantity. What a bizarre cultural landscape in which human worth is measured by quantity of activities! Busy-ness is a tyrannical taskmaster who leaves us lying awake at night exhausted but unable to sleep, because we’re not sure if all we’re doing is enough.
Think of all that is offered us in Christ. Unconditional acceptance. Importance that isn’t based on performance. Ultimate, unshakeable worth. A life that is truly full, not merely bloated. All the things that we’re trying to attain through the idol of busy-ness can actually be found in the gospel.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that if our schedules are empty, we must be using our time wisely. The opposite extreme, laziness, is a different but equally insidious problem. It also doesn’t mean that all busy people are slaves to their schedules. I have known extraordinarily busy people who didn’t hesitate to make time for me when I needed them. However, those of us filling our lives with activities need to take a close, reflective look at why we’re busy and what we might be sacrificing in order to maintain that level of busy-ness. Ultimately, our identity must be rooted in our status as sons and daughters of the King, made in His image, redeemed, transformed, and unconditionally loved.