Of all the distractions that keep us from living a fulfilled life, the most prevalent in our world today may be busyness.
Possessions and property and the desire for wealth all come to mind, but the greatest distraction of them all may be busyness—it seems to transcend every social class.
I was struck recently by a quote from Søren Kierkegaard concerning the danger of living a fast-paced, hectic lifestyle. Over 150 years ago, he said it like this:
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?”
I have found his words to be true in my own life. Being busy does not result in fulfillment and meaning. Being busy may mean more things are getting done… but they are often the wrong things.
A busy life is an unexamined life. And an unexamined life is rarely worth living.
I learned this lesson many years ago when I was forced to slow down in college because of a unique course assignment. We were required to spend 1 hour per week, alone in a room with our thoughts. There was to be no music, no books, no meditation guides, no technology, no thought aids whatsoever. Instead, we were to sit quietly and allow our minds to focus wherever our hearts took us.
The practice was difficult at first, but eventually turned out to be one of the most significant assignments and practices of my entire college life.
The hour of solitude did not result in papers being written, homework being turned in, books being read, tests being studied for, or to-do items being checked off. It didn’t result in the usual busywork being completed. Quite the contrary, it resulted in deep life reflection about the trajectory of my life, the person I was becoming, and whether I even wanted that to be true of me.
It is why, I think, when I first read Kierkegaard’s quote, it resonated so deeply within me. Busyness may keep us rushing from project to project, place to place, or appointment to appointment, but what really are we accomplishing with these hectic schedules?
Rarely does busyness result in the most important work of our lives being completed. It most often just distracts us from it.
I experienced a very humbling moment yesterday. I ran into a friend—a good friend who is battling cancer. And it occurred to me, as soon as I saw him, that I had not spoken with him for over two weeks. Not a phone call, not a text, not a single inquiry into his health. My friend is facing the greatest struggle of his life… and I didn’t even think to check in with him.
Reasons quickly surfaced in my head to excuse my lack of thoughtfulness. I would have checked in, but “I’ve been traveling out of town most of the past week,” “I’m launching this really big project next month,” “I’ve been so busy with so-and-so and this-and-that, it’s understandable that my friend never crossed my mind.”
This, you see, is what busyness does to us. It prevents us from remaining focused on the most important work that we need to do.
Busyness crowds out self-reflection. It keeps our mind and feet always scurrying from one thing to another and never allows us to sit quietly in our thoughts to determine if the next opportunity is even something we should be engaging in.
As Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
A busy life is an unexamined life. And an unexamined life is rarely worth living. It may be full, but it is rarely fulfilling.
It should be noted, of course, that this does not mean we will not go through busy seasons of life. Every new parent knows there are busy seasons in life. Every college student knows there are busy seasons during a semester. And almost every worker in the world knows there are heightened periods of busyness as deadlines come and go.
I am not saying there is no space for busy seasons. But a busy season is different from a busy life. If you find yourself racing about season after season after season, constantly chasing who-knows-what, you may want to ask yourself if you are finding enough time for meditation and solitude and self-reflection.
In this regard, some have even begun equating busyness with laziness. It is not laziness as we typically define the term, but it can still be a form of it. If our rushing about from one activity to another distracts us from self-reflection, or even worse, the important work that we should be taking up with our lives, it may indeed be a form of laziness—at the very least, it produces the same result.
I am challenged by the words of Søren Kierkegaard. His thoughts on how busyness may be preventing us from important work ring true—especially in our modern culture.
How many regrets have I heard from others who spent too much time working to be present with their family? How many times have I turned the other way from helping another (or simply calling a friend) because of the commitments on my calendar? And how many days have I let pass without focused self-reflection?
In each case, it may be asked, where does busyness get us? What exactly does it allow us to get done? And how might we be using it as a shield from the deeper work required of us?