It’s been a strange few months since Covid 19 kicked in earlier this year. For many of us who didn’t have to work longer, harder hours, lockdown acted like the click of a hypnotist’s fingers, snapping us out of our trances to reveal hidden, damaging behaviours and addictions. Suddenly, as work and social activities slowed right up or stopped completely, we could see our part in society’s addiction to consumption, travel and perpetual economic growth, which results in the relentless exploitation of the natural world. Revealed too were our personal addictions to shopping, thrills and work. Above all, we discovered that one of our greatest dependencies was constant, ceaseless activity and busyness.
Being busy, aiming to achieve and do well in whatever we take on is an easy trap to fall into, because like all addictions there are plenty of pay-offs. People applaud us for it and they appear to like us more for taking on additional responsibilities or helping out. Busyness makes us feel good about ourselves and our identity is positively defined by a sense of achievement for what we do. The busier we are, the more we believe in the lie that our worth is defined by the things that we do. Given further opportunities to become even busier, we grab them, people pleasers to the end, desperate to bolster our fragile self-esteem. If anybody suggests that we are too busy, our immediate response is that we are simply doing our duty. The activities we do have to be done and if we don’t do them, who will? Denial is another good defence, usually with an example of someone even busier than us. This is rather like an alcoholic who says he’s not an alcoholic because he knows people who drink far more than he does. We can always find that busier person too, but in doing so we ignore the words of Jesus to “first take the log out of our own eye”. He knew that each of us has a huge blind spot preventing us from seeing our own damaging behaviours.
When lockdown really took hold and it was no longer possible to be busy in the ways we normally were, there was a frantic search for alternatives. In a frenzy of activity, people were setting up WhatsApp groups, arranging Zoom meetings and engaging in social media as if all our lives depended upon it. Which in some ways they did, because we still needed our fix. Fortunately though, over time, many of us began to accept our new situation and very gradually relaxed into it, like cranked up passengers boarding a plane who finally calm down an hour or two into the flight.
We had time to think and reflect. We began to discover that perhaps ceaseless activity wasn’t always good for us. Taking time to do things more slowly brought its own rewards. Simply being still could feel good too. Walking along deserted, traffic-free roads we noticed the trees coming into leaf, saw the different blossoms come and go, heard the birds sing and rejoiced in the fresh pollution-free air, all of which brought us calmness and harmony. We were reminded of our smallness in the great spread of things and realised that our planet would generally do very well without us. We found time to step back and see the needs of those around us. And the most liberating feeling of all was the rock-solid reason we had for not being busy. We required no lame excuse and had no sense of failure for an unfinished job or for letting someone else down. It wasn’t our fault. We had to stop and in spite having stopped, we were still okay.
Jesus completely understood the problem of busyness and overactivity. He resisted the temptation to become a busy, people pleaser. After feeding five thousand plus hungry people, Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “immediately” headed off into the hills to pray. No waiting around to soak up the success. He knew that he wasn’t defined by his activity or by what people said about him. Time and again he sought out quiet places where he could stop and be still. He would have known Psalm 46 which says “Be still and know that I am God,” so he sought out time to be alone with God. Prayer was an essential part of this blow against the tyranny of busyness. The idea of “sabbath rest” was familiar to Jesus too, which helps to build a time of stillness and rest into the rhythm of our lives. But knowing our tendency to make everything legalistic and rule bound, Jesus was quite clear that this day of rest was made for us and for our benefit, not the other way around. We are to welcome and enjoy it, not be ruled by it. Such a break from our busyness will rarely come when we have finished our work – the truth is, if we wait to finish before we stop, we will probably never stop, because there will always be something else we want or need to do. Because of this we must build into our lives these enforced breaks and periods of stillness and rest.
Within the 12-step tradition, there is also a recognition that overly busy lives are not healthy. Activity is clearly an important part of recovery but so too is stillness and quiet. Step 11 provides the opportunity: “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Often this is the least understood and most difficult step of all because people confuse a spiritual practice with religion and shy away from it or fail to engage with it properly. Which misses the benefits the step can bring. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation speaking of step 11 says “you can pray or meditate by being still, quiet, stopping, reflecting and listening to your thoughts. You can plan your day in an orderly way. Ask yourself, God, or a higher power for the right answers to get you through the day.” Which is so helpful to all of us. Building this into our daily routine is good, even when we are busy – especially when we are busy. In the words of St Francis de Sales, “Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”
As we start to become active again post-lockdown, there is the risk of us picking up where we left off and becoming overly busy again. Fortunately, the gradual return to normality will help and the fact that we are not going back to the same old way of living but a new, different normal. Actively monitoring our busyness is a good idea, as is waiting, reflecting and praying before committing to new requests or activities, recognising with humility that we are not essential to the operation of the Universe and that life will go on without us. Learning to stop, rest, pray and meditate are vital, because only in stopping and giving God our undivided attention do our hearts discover that we are loved by God irrespective of what we do or don’t do. It’s all about a love that is freely given, not duty, busyness or success that we are required to do in order to earn that love. As Richard Rohr says, “The people who know God well – mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God – always meet a lover, not a dictator.” If Covid 19 helps us to discover this, then it is possible that the worst of times can become for us the best of times.
‘Crazy-busy’ is a great armour, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us. Brene Brown
As soon as we are alone, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important. Henri J.M. Nouwen
Busyness allows us to avoid the deepest questions of our souls. It keeps us at arm’s length from our truest, most authentic selves. And when we don’t know our deepest, most authentic selves, we can’t know what work and what role God has for us in this world. Michelle DeRusha
The way to develop inner peace through meditation begins with the recognition that the destroyer of inner peace is not some external foe, but is within us. Therefore, the solution is within us too. Dalai Lama