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The Elimination of Busy: The Spiritual Discipline Of Being Present

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My friend Gary periodically performs what he calls "rhetorical surgery" on himself, excising from his vocabulary a word that feels drained of all meaning. (Two of his banished words are "church" and "nice.") Although I do not typically make New Year's resolutions, which usually feel too obligatory and superficial to take root, this year I decided to attempt some rhetorical surgery on myself. The aim of my linguistic scalpel: "busy."

I deployed "busy" sometimes as a lament, often as a badge of honor, and almost always as vacantly as any well-worn cliché. Once I tuned my ears to busy, I began to hear it everywhere. We keep busy (busy can be kept); we stay busy (busy can be fixed); we get busy (busy can be gotten, sexually even); we are busy (busy can be an ontological reality, inherent to our very being); we can be too busy (busy can be overindulged in). If a room's decorating is deemed busy, it is an insult. If one is called a busybody, it is a negative character assessment. However, in most of the various ways that busy is deployed, it carries positive implications and good cultural capital. We are happy to be viewed as busy, even if we are not actually happy to be busy.

So, what's the deal with busy? Why is it so pervasive? Could I define life, work, relationships, choices (mine and others') without resorting to busy? Why is being a "busy person" a compliment? Why are we so tied to busy and so uncomfortable with the specter of not being (or appearing) busy? I have a few strong hunches, and I invite you to join me in reflecting on busy and its implications for the spiritual life.

Our fixation on busy -- the ubiquity of keeping, staying, being, appearing busy -- seems to me a symptom of our societal obsession with productivity. If we are not always and forever productive (usually measured in economic terms), then we risk a societal demotion. We've tied human worth so closely to economic value that often the latter determines the former. In fact, we have a robust lexicon for people who are deemed not busy, unproductive. They are lazy, useless, leeches, welfare moms, bums. We fear falling into one of these vilified categories, so we keep busy, stay busy, are busy.

While I am not advocating that we forsake obligations and wipe clean our calendars, I am searching for more meaningful ways to frame our activity in the world and our valuation of human life. Those persons who fall outside the framework of busy -- those whose lives are not productive in the ways we often determine productivity -- are too readily devalued and pushed aside. I am thinking of persons with cognitive impairment, physical disabilities or who otherwise cannot endure busy-ness. Many older adults fall into one or more of these categories, which may help explain why ageism -- the systematic negative rendering of the old -- rears its ugly head too frequently. We disdain the seemingly unproductive, those whose "being" outstrips their "doing."

I also suspect that busy serves as a pass, exonerating us from the vulnerability of and responsibility to this moment. However unintentionally, busy functions as an acceptable excuse for being distracted from the present. I wonder if the prevalent "I-am-too-busy" invocation really means that there is some future matter or goal that supersedes the present person or task at hand, that "real" life is going to happen rather than is happening right now. How often have I been guilty of looking past or beyond the person right in front of me, because I was busy, either internally or externally, striving toward some future event. I am convinced that this sort of distracted life runs at cross purposes with the spiritual life.

Recently I heard an interview of a former monk who had studied and lived with the Dalai Lama. He still spent considerable time traveling with the Dalai Lama and knew, firsthand, the intensity of his schedule. But the colleague said that when he spoke with the Dalai Lama, His Holiness was entirely present to him, as if he were the only person on the planet.

As a Christian, I am drawn to this same quality in Jesus. In the Gospels, his interchanges with persons are true encounters. He offers his undivided attention and presence to the person, usually in his/her suffering. When the disciples attempt to send children away because, they reasoned, Jesus was too busy to be bothered by them, Jesus rebuked the disciples and welcomed the little ones.

It is not true that Jesus had inexhaustible energy; the Gospels report that he retreated and rested with some regularity. The same holds true for the Dalai Lama. Although demands upon them are tremendous, "busy" is not a meaningful category for such spiritual sages. "Too busy" does not tumble from their lips as a descriptor of their days or as an excuse for inattention to others.

I am not suggesting that we can or should free our lives from pressures and demands, but rather that these engagements, as such, must not define our identities, determine our worth or dictate our purpose. These engagements -- our busy-ness -- are only as good as the compassionate relationships and attentive encounters they foster.

In her yearly Christmas card letter, my friend, who had recently quit her job, announced, "I'm taking an unpaid sabbatical." Other Christmas letters (including mine, when I get my act together enough to send them) chronicle the many events and accomplishments of the year, usually with some reference to the "busy year" the writer has had. I had to admire the courage of my friend in her unapologetic report of her unpaid timeout. Similarly, a colleague of mine who recently resigned had the guts to share that she did not have a plan for what she would do next. She decided to listen to the voice inside her that was calling her to create some space in her life. How unusual and refreshing it is to witness individuals so unbeholden to busy.

For the present time, I've attempted to eliminate busy from excuses, from off-handed justifications for my day and from estimations of my life and the life of others. I won't be keeping it, staying it or being it.

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