Tuesday, September 20, 2011


There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence…[and that is] activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence.
--Thomas Merton

"Someday I'll be able to be two places at once!" an acquaintance recently announced.

My goal is to be truly present, for five minutes before I die, in one place.

Hardly anything is more countercultural than refusing to be "busy." I like a lot of space around my activities. I look upon being overscheduled and overcrowded as a failure on my part, not a triumph.   

Sometimes that means foregoing a lesser good--say TV--for a greater good. But really what that means in the willingness not to be relevant, which Henri Nouwen posited was one of the three temptations Satan held out to Christ in the desert.

I will put in massive amounts of work on things that interest me, but I balk at staying "busy" doing work I don't believe in so I can buy things I don't need, or on trying to be all things to all people, or because I can't bear to sit in silence, contemplating the fact that one day I will  die...

To say I'm not busy is not to say I'm not absorbed, alert and interested. To say I'm not busy is not to say I'm idle.

In the Gospels, Christ seems utterly focused but he never seems rushed. He seems gathered. He seems intuitively sure of his priorities. When he learns that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been beheaded, he doesn't rush around helping plan the funeral: he goes off to "a lonely place" to pray. When Mary and Martha, distraught, summon him to tend to the dying Lazarus, he doesn't show up for three days.

In the boat with his disciples on a raging sea, he curls up and takes a nap.

Sometimes obligations to children and parents, the necessity to pay the rent, the general press of life means that we're busy from dawn to dusk and beyond; that we can't rest. But that's different than staying wilfully, compulsively busy when we don't have to.

If the Savior of the world could relax, we're probably called to as well. If someone so exquisitely attuned to suffering was able to accept that he couldn't heal everyone, we must be called to accept that, too.

That doesn't mean we don't give to the limit of our heart, mind, and strength.  It means he is the vine and we are the branches. It means we do the best we can, knowing we're going to fall short.  It means we're always willing to stretch ourselves and we're also willing to let the results go.

Here's a passage from Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts:


For in some beastly way this fine laziness has got itself a bad name. It is easy to see how it might have come into disrepute, if the result of laziness were hunger. But it rarely is. Hunger makes laziness impossible. It has even become sinful to be lazy. We wonder why. One could argue, particularly if one had a gift for laziness, that it is a relaxation pregnant of activity, a sense of rest from which directed effort may arise, whereas most busy-ness is merely a kind of nervous tic...

How can such a process have become a shame and a sin? Only in laziness can one achieve a state of contemplation which is a balancing of values, a weighing of oneself against the world and the world against itself. A busy man cannot find the time for such balancing. We do not think a lazy man can commit murders, nor great thefts, nor lead a mob. He would be more likely to think about it and laugh. And a nation of lazy contemplative men would be incapable of fighting a war unless their very laziness were attacked. Wars are the activities of busy-ness.



  1. Another great post. I think that the constant need to stay busy is actually a form of compulsion. It's something many people, myself included, struggle with.

  2. I have tv with limited cable but I never watch it. I just got out of the habit. Occasionally I get a twinge of regret that I don't have a share in some conversation about the topic of the day which everyone knows about from their tv, but mostly I am grateful that I don't have all that cluttering up my head. I can choose better sources of input to shape my thoughts and feelings. And really, there's almost no escaping the big stories of popular culture anyway. When I go to search for something on Bing, I get fifty headlines of mostly useless and pointless "news" stories. When something truly important happens, people talk about it in real life and that's not a bad way to be informed, person-to-person.

  3. One of my favorite quotes, placed where I can see it every morning: "Hurry is a form of violence against time", attributed, variously, to Donald Nicholl and Eugene Peterson. Yes, it's good and necessary to be reminded to slow down, for all sorts of reasons... thanks for the inspiring reminder :)

  4. A reflective life is not necessarily a lazy life. If you are a writer or an avid reader, you may or may not be a man or woman of action or as you alluded a period of reflection may preceed action after contemplation of alternatives or ramifications

    Your blog resonated with me because I am such a person who has spent time reflecting prior to taking action which sometimes results in no action. That is ok too.

    Frenetic people drive me to distraction and I avoid them like the plague. Your insights on this subject ring true with me and I attribute your success in blogging and books to this trait.

    You also mentioned John Steinbeck who in addition to his opus magnus wrote a small gem "Travels with Charlie" late in his life about a road trip with his dog across the USA. Good stuff.

  5. http://news.discovery.com/human/busy-people-happiness.html says:

    The researchers say a third type of busyness could be encouraged in society -- "futile busyness, namely busyness serving no purpose other than to prevent idleness."

    "For example, homeowners may increase the happiness of their idle housekeepers by letting in some mice and prompting the housekeepers to clean," they wrote, adding "governments may increase the happiness of idle citizens by having them build bridges that are actually useless."


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