In Defense of Being Busy

“Oh, I’m so busy!”

We have a love-hate relationship with being busy, don’t we? Wherever we are in life, there are voices that will try to make us feel guilty about it.

On the one hand, we have a lot to do.

We have families, jobs, responsibilities, hopes, dreams, hobbies. Our days fill up fast. One part of the culture tells us to do it all, or we’ll miss out. Worse, our kids might miss out. (But miss out on what? There are people working three jobs who might miss out on having a roof over their heads.)

On the other hand, we know that constant busyness isn’t that good for us.

We all resent that stereotypical super-busy executive that doesn’t have time to stop and say hello (unless we’re her. Then we just feel guilty about it). We read blog posts that tell us that in being too busy, we’re missing what life is really all about. Our kids are missing out on a carefree childhood. If we’re too busy, we’re told, it’s only because of our own choices. We made our bed, now we’ll have to lie in it or make some changes.

Making Choices

I’m not a naturally busy person. I’m the type that, left to myself, will spend a large part of a vacation doing pretty much nothing. I like to have blank spaces in my daily life, free to be filled by whatever needs and adventures pop up; free to sit and play with the toddler, cook something adventurous, or just watch the clouds.

When I was in college, I didn’t sign up for much in the way of extra activities or ministries. I made a conscious choice, that my main ministry while I was there would simply be the people around me, to be an ear and a friend who had the time to sit and talk for hours, if need be. I’ve never regretted that choice.

Seasons Change

But, that was a long time ago, and my life has changed a lot since then. As we’ve welcomed more children into our lives and been hammered by the storms of life, we’re in a place now where we are very, very busy. It feels too busy sometimes, overscheduled and overstretched, as I have guarded against becoming for so many years. The kids have grown, and my slow, measured pace has sped up all on its own.

But for our family right now, the only other choice is to let ourselves become too closed in, too insular, so home-centered that we don’t give ourselves or the kids the opportunity to form real relationships outside the family. When we do that, our gifts and talents stagnate from disuse as we begin to feel that we are treading water, instead of giving ourselves room to grow and change and serve. Kids don’t do well with too much scheduled activity, it’s true, but they don’t thrive without any of them, either. (At least, mine don’t. Maybe yours do!) We know this – we’ve done it, in pursuit of that un-busy life. It wasn’t good for us.

While this creates a dissonance in my heart between the slowness I value and the many duties of my current vocation, I believe that this is a sacrifice I am called to make in this season, for the good of all of us. Just as busyness isn’t always good or virtuous, it’s also not always bad. It doesn’t always mean that you have made wrong choices or failed to say no when you should have. It might just mean that God has given you a lot to do for a while.

Is being busy good? Or bad?

Neither, friend. It just depends on why we’re so busy.

Sometimes, our lives require much busyness just to fulfill our basic duties. The saints have been there too – just read this quote from St Francis Xavier, written to let incoming fellow missionaries know what to expect:

“You won’t have time to pray, to meditate or contemplate, nor will you have time for any type of spiritual recollection. You won’t be able to say mass, you will be continually busy answering their questions. You’ll have little time to pray your breviary, and less for eating and sleeping.”

From Cartas de San Francisco Xavier a San Ignacio de Loyola, Translation from Regnum Christi

Sometimes, our duty does call us to set some things aside and slow down. We’ll know we’re there, if we really can’t fulfill our duties to God, those around us, and ourselves. Then it’s definitely time to step back and take stock. If we’re busy because we’re chasing the world and competing with our neighbors, that probably isn’t healthy.

Neither busyness or un-busyness is inherently good or bad, holy or unholy. We pass through seasons of both in our lives. We have to learn to prayerfully discern the best way to manage the responsibilities in front of us. 

No guilt needed.

Vanity, Faith, and Hard Times: Believing in God’s Love When Everything Goes Wrong

“Eight kids!? Wow, that’s great. As long as you can support them, that’s great.”

Preparing for my daughter to be released from the hospital after a long and exhausting week, I was chatting with one of the nurses. Making conversation, she had asked me how many kids we had.

I might not have really noticed her reply, other than that it was said (all unknowing) shortly after my husband had lost his job, and therefore hit me like a punch to the gut. We were in a terrifying place of uncertainty and insecurity at that time.

Let me just toss out there that no one knows, when they have a baby or two, what the next 20 years will bring. No one knows if the economy will crash, wipe out savings, and gut the field where the breadwinner is competitive. No one knows if a job will be lost and hard to replace, or a disability or injury will run up medical bills and limit employability, or a spouse will die, or a child will have special needs that preclude that second job and rack up bills.

No one knows if a shift in the political landscape will send your insurance premiums through the roof, or eject you from your policy altogether. No one knows if, after you lose your insurance, somebody will get cancer.

No one knows. So we try to prepare, as best we can, for all of them. And some of us win. Our preparations are on point, and we get lucky and evade the disaster we couldn’t have withstood.

And, some of us lose. Some plan for all the wrong contingencies, and get slammed by the crisis no one saw coming.

Then, if we “did it right” and remained self-sufficient through our kids’ childhoods (or maybe never had any kids for fear of not being able to support them), we can have a lot of pride and self-righteousness wrapped up in our “success,” as though it came from us, and not from Providence.

And for someone with kids and financial problems, there can be a lot of shame – but, paradoxically,  that shame can really be another form of pride. Our vanity is stung by our condition, and we can respond in two ways.

  1. Our problems might be “ALL our fault.” We can review every choice we ever made in the harsh light of hindsight, and become bitter against ourselves and those who counseled us.
  2. Or, we make excuses. We take our mistakes and missteps, and pretend that NONE of them were our fault, and that none of them could have possibly caused our problems.

I believe both of these responses are caused by vanity. If we allow ourselves too much pride when we land that job or promotion, buy the house or car, pay the bills and the debts, even give generously to charity, if we believe that we really did cause these things ourselves (rather than realizing that God blessed our labors, and that we may have had advantages that we didn’t earn), then conversely when we lose them, or can’t achieve them, we’ll feel the sting of shame and anger. Our wounded pride will turn on us like a treacherous friend.

And if we hit on hard times and focus too much on our shame and loss, then we are still viewing the situation through the self-centered eyes of vanity.

We might feel like we’re being humble by focusing on our humiliating circumstances, but it’s a trap, friends. Pride is sneaky like that. When we do this, we’ve made our world about us, about our own dreams or about how others view us, not about fulfilling God’s dream for us. In her excellent post on the profound humility of Mary, Chloe at Old Fashioned Girl says this:

“We often think that humility is about thinking less of ourselves, or thinking that we are not worthy. But the reality is that humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.”

The only escape from this net of pride and vanity is through grace. The grace to embrace a holy resignation to the will of God, and to trust that things are as they should be, though we feel that our very soul may bleed out from the pain, fear, and disappointment we face. The grace to know that when a well-meaning stranger says that kids are great if you can support them, that the reality is that sometimes you might have to get help, and kids are still great anyway. The grace to know that “success” in the eyes of God has nothing to do with your credit score, whether you are debt-free, or your level of financial independence (which is largely imaginary, anyway. All of us are highly dependent to one degree or another on the social network in which we live).

Shame isn’t always a bad thing, of course. Shame as part of repentance for sin is completely appropriate. But even then, as Fr. Mike Schmitz mentions in his video on learning from the past that I put up on Facebook the other day, dwelling on these things too much and refusing to move on after we repent can also be a form of self-centeredness.  As St. Teresa of Calcutta said:

“Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.”