“How have you been recently?”
“Oh, I’m not too bad. I’m taking a few classes, working two jobs, volunteering at church and on the side I’m writing a novel. I hardly sleep and practically live on coffee, but it’s great. What have you been up to?”
“Me? Just work I guess.”
“That must be nice." [thinks: slacker]
Have you ever had that conversation? I have many times, and over the years I have found myself playing both roles.
We take this sort of talk for granted, but if we step back and get a bit of perspective, it is a fascinating social construct with massive—and frightening—implications.
Those short conversations give us a glimpse of the way people view the world, because it is often the little day to day practices that reveal our deepest values.
You can see it play out every Monday at the office, and every Sunday in church lobbies around the world. People who have not seen each other in a few days or weeks start to catch up, and the talk quickly turns toward comparing notes on how terribly busy we all are. Volunteer positions, family commitments and work loads are listed, as each of us demonstrates just how much we are trying to juggle.
The sad thing is, we are quite proud of it.
And not very secretly proud either.
Oh sure, we complain about how we have not had a real day off in weeks, or how much work it all is. But somehow all our complaining sounds rather like bragging. It’s just backhanded bragging, like complaining that you didn’t expect learning Spanish to be so much work after you had such high scores in French, German and fifth-century Latin.
You can hear it in the voices of those recounting their busy schedules, and the guilt with which many of us have learned to speak of having free time. We’ve bought into the gospel of busyness. We’ve accepted the narrative we are constantly sold by our society—that our value rests in what we can produce, that we are loved for what we can accomplish. Full calendars become a badge of honor.
Lee, a pastor I knew quite well, was a perfect example. The only pastor at a small rural church, he worked constantly. In his mind, the success or failure of the church was on his shoulders, completely dependent on his level of activity. Between studying, hospital visits, preaching and leading worship on Sunday, teaching a few additional times each week and being constantly on call for everyone in his church, he hardly had a free moment all week. And you could tell. He was chronically tired and often dealt with long periods of discouragement. But he loved his church, he wanted to do right by them and the only way he could see to be a "successful" pastor was to work even harder despite his declining physical and emotional health. Because to Lee, like so many of us, work had become the way he measured his value.
So we push ourselves harder and harder. We sleep less, we work more and we do indeed accomplish a great deal.
But in the process we begin to forget how to sit,
and read for pleasure,
and have a real conversation with a friend, or family member or spouse
and savor a drink for its flavors and complexities, not its ability to chemically induce either wakefulness or sleep.
Here’s the dirty little secret of the gospel of busyness: It promises us a full and satisfying life, but, in the end, it makes our lives emptier. It uses us for what we can contribute, and in the process we live less, feel less, even love less.
Instead of a life filled with the satisfaction of endless accomplishments, we’ve gotten ourselves a generation of chronic exhaustion, absent workaholic parents and kids who have been not-so-subtly taught that the only way to earn the attention and love of others is with grades, paychecks or championships.
But your value is not determined by what you produce. Your loveliness is not based on what you accomplish or how full your calendar is.
Work is good—it’s part of the way God designed His image-bearers—but it is not the only thing we were made for. He created us to have a balance in life, going so far as to incorporate a cycle of work and rest into the very fabric of the created order. There is a time for work in that cycle, but there is also a time for rest and community and quiet contemplation.
A life of constant overcommitment is not a sign of success, or something to be bragged about. It is a sign of imbalance, a sign we have put our faith in the gospel of busyness instead of in a God who dares us to trust Him and be willing to rest.
There is hope for the overcommitted, though; we don’t have to live this way. We can balance good hard work with rest and play; in fact we were created to live in that balance. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can all stop playing the game of bragging that we are so very busy.
So the next time you catch up with a friend, refrain from contributing to the cycle. Refuse to brag about busyness as if it were a virtue, refuse to act like making time to rest is a mark of shame. If the very God who designed us thought that balancing work with rest was worthwhile, perhaps we should give it a try.
Mason Slater is a seminary student at GRTS, a publishing consultant and a freelance writer in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find his blog at masonslater.com. This article was expanded from one that originally appeared on deeperstory.com.