Thursday, October 20, 2005

In Praise of Busyness?

Douglas Groothius made a post on multi-tasking that set Dan Edelen at Cerulean Sanctum off on something of a rant on the evils of multi-tasking and our modern "busy" schedules.

Let me say that both writers make some excellent points. Busyness, distraction and disconnection from the moment and the reality we are in are prevalent and unhealthy behaviors that we should seek to avoid. Certainly, many of us are guilty of over-booking, hyper-scheduling and multi-tasking ourselves to the point that we are not capable of devoting adequate time to the task directly in front of us. And, surely, some of us have obligated ourselves to the point that we are missing opportunities to connect with other people in a meaningful way.

But here's my question: What is new or unique about these problems and challenges? Aren't these dysfunctional traits and behaviors rooted in the human desire and drive to create a (false) sense of security or control? And based on the (false) belief that we can control our lives and create security? And further augmented by our eagerness to avoid admitting that we cannot create meaning and purpose, but must submit to it?

Didn't Augustine struggle with these tendencies without a cellphone, a PDA, a broadband internet connection or a lengthy commute in his Lexus to the library at Alexandria?

In short, I think the failed behaviors are real and problematic. But the solution is not going to come by asking people to live as if the constructs of modern society do not exist. We live in a world that is built on electronic communication, remote work locations, and multiple time zones. These are our constraints to live in modern society as much as those who lived in 15th century Europe lived with the constraints of the lack of clean drinking water, indoor toilets and antibiotics. Every set of constraints has implications regarding our behavior, but I don't believe that the constraints themselves will drive or dictate the level of spiritual meaning and value that the true disciple will imbue into their lives and livelihood.

To quote from my post at Cerulean Sanctum:

Susan said, If the church is to survive as a true community, we need to intentionally put our cell phones down, log off the computer, and do more sitting around warm wood-hewn tables with hot drinks... and stay a the expense of worldly "productivity." Most right now are simply not willing to pay that price.

While this sounds great, where is the factual basis that "leisure time" as Susan describes results in some greater capacity for spirituality or Christian discipleship?

How do you think the vast majority of people (I'm talking about 99% or more) spent their lives before the 20th century? How much leisure time did they have? How many "weekends off" or "vacations" were they given?

Sure, their commutes were shorter - because they never left work! They worked 12-14 hours each day and did that 6 days a week. No trips to the park with their kids, no long weekends at the beach, no talking to family they were separated from, no spiritual retreats or workshops or seminars.

You guys are really judging a specific group of people with a specific problem in a specific subset of Western culture against an unrealistic view of history.

50 hour work-weeks are short, short, short when compared to how practically every person in every society has ever lived up until Western civilization in the early 20th century.

Our lack of spirituality and redemptive living is not because we work long hours, have lengthy commutes or talk on cellphones. It is because we continue to believe the deception that we are in control. It is deepened by our continued belief that our work has inherent meaning rather than being imbued with meaning because of how we do it.

I find a modern predisposition in evangelical circles with this latter issue especially troubling: the idea that work like farming or carpentry is somehow more meaningful than practicing law or accounting, for example. This is just another form of the clergy/laity divide that was in its turn a form of the false "secular/sacred" divide that sprang from that gnostic dualism that has shadowed the steps of Christianity since its infancy.

We will not find our "lost spirituality" at the peaceful fireside any more than we will find it on our 2 hour commute or in our email inbox. It will be created when we decide to live deliberately and purposefully - surrendered and submitted and wide awake.

Our ability to live in that manner is no more or less achievable with the constraints of the 21st century culture we find ourselves in now than it would be were we to find ourselves living on a farm far from "the Grid".


jpu said...

I think we need to live quiet lives and work for our eternal reward than for the cable bill. 1 thess 4:11.
I develop this some more at my blog.
God is good

Susan said...

Thanks for the quote on your blog. It may help to point out that I was not promoting mere "leisure time." It is interesting that you made that conclusion. What I was speaking of, and yes I do believe this has a great deal to do with our capacity for spirituality and Christian discipleship, is intentionally and without the distraction of electronic devices that tend to go off in the middle of conversations and hijack them, spend time face to face with people in your life. That is all. I am not a luddite.

People in all centuries have had the same need for relationship and have needed to deal with the unique obstacles encountered in their time. Today's obstacles are not the same as yesteryear's in a tangible sense perhaps, but the heart-issues are the same.

CJR said...

Susan -

Thanks for the comment. I used the term "leisure time" more in the sense of how I took Dan's comment about "unloading" our schedules to allow more "down time" for reflection, etc. - which was also, I believe, Groothius' point. I didn't use the "leisure" term to refer to a specific activity, but to refer to "self-directed" time - that is, time where we get to choose what we will do (as opposed to "work" time, "travel" time, etc.).

I agree - and this was really my point - that the issues are not new, not related to technology and are heart issues that humanity has always struggled with.

Alexander M Jordan said...


I thought your comments on the posts by Groothius and Edelen made excellent points--especially the idea that our modern culture is no more likely to drive one to distraction from purpose than previous ones. I was inspired by all three posts to write my own take on this subject (I linked to your post, as well as the other two).

Having just returned from the recent GodBlogCon conference, the theme of the purposes for Christian blogging have been running through my mind a lot.

Perhaps you'd like to have a look at my post and leave a comment.



Dan Edelen said...

Just now getting caught up after being away.

I would recommend reading Eric Brende's Better Off, a book that looks at the myths of "busy" farmlife when compared with the busyness we experience in the modern business world. Very enlightening.

Thanks for the link and additional discussion!

CJR said...

Dan -

Thanks for the comment. Another great book in the genre of Brende - though I believe it's a better book, at least stylistically, is The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert. To me, the subject is much more ingenuous than Brende.

I wasn't really trying to pick on farming - which, I'm sure, is a great lifestyle. My essential point is that we simply cannot look to the external culture as a source of spiritual living. History is replete with examples of people and cultures in much greater stress than ours where believers still lived deeply meaningful, purposeful, spiritual lives.

Further, the modern perception that our pace is more frenetic or stressful than those eras preceeding it is simply not based on fact. Entire concepts such as "leisure time", "vacation", "disposable income", "adolescence", "5-day work-week", "40-hour week", "weekends off", and on and on didn't exist in the pre-industrial age!

Of course, we've just traded old evils for new ones - so I'm not saying we're better off now, I'm only saying we're wrong-headed in blaming our pace and lifestyle for our lack of spirituality. An unspiritual attorney or accountant in a mid-sized American city, will, in all likelihood, be an unspiritual dairy farmer in the middle of nowhere. And the opposite is true, too.

CJR said...

In further thought on Brende's book, it important to note that the ultimate lesson learned from his family's experience is not so much about technology - as it ostensibly began - but about finding a rhythm that matches one's capabilities and preferences. It's about paring down the "non-essentials" to the point that you're not working so hard to have things you don't really have to have to feel contented and comfortable.

The upshot is, oddly, that Brende couldn't do the latter by working on a farm "off the grid", but had to return to modern society with a healthier understanding of materialism and the rat race.

Again, lessons about human nature regarding greed, consumerism and superficiality - not about technology or modern social structure.

If the contention is that many people exhaust themselves and ruin their lives because they are too materialistic or too greedy, then, clearly, I agree.

If, however, the contention is that technology and the modern work-week have anything to do with this problem, I disagree.

brad said...

A few additional points. Wirk in America is actually getting more collaborative and team based BY FAR than in the past. I think mulit-tasking by working and relating creates very good and meaningful relationships. Also, Paul seemed to work pretty hard. he was a bi-vocational missionary that still got a lot done for God. I work a job, go to school, pastor a church and have six kids and I do not feel busy at all. WHY? the key is leaving all outcomes to everything to God and living :one day at a time". I consider my busy life completely stress free and I always see the only real task at hand is to love people. It is all a matter of orientation of one's heart.