I don't know about you, but anytime I am asked, "How's it going?", I never just say "fine" anymore. Instead, my stock response is always some degree of frazzled. The scale ranges from "busy" to "crazy busy" to "nutballs."
The good news is, my answer is usually met with sympathetic response, which is as reassuring as it is depressing.
"Tell me about it! We are, too!"
"I know! Isn't it insane!"
"There's never enough time in the day, is there?"
But something changed about a month ago. I bumped into a friend at the gym. Instead of sympathizing when I said I was "crazy busy," he simply asked:
"Really? So what do you have going on today?"
I had to stop and think for a moment. No one has ever asked me to "describe my busy." So I conducted a mental review of our calendar before explaining that I had a worship band rehearsal in the morning, followed by a basketball game for my son, a church commitment for my wife, a birthday party for my daughter, and a date night that evening.
"Sounds like a full day. Have fun!"
At first, I was a bit resentful. He obviously misunderstood me. I wanted to remind him how horrible all of this was. I wanted to explain how driving from place to place in my comfortable SUV was a huge pain in the ass. Not to mention how Gabby and I would have to split up for part of the day. Buying and wrapping the birthday gift? Don't even get me started! And then only having an hour to get the kids fed and get ready for our semi-fancy date that evening.
Didn't you hear me? I am busy! Sweet Baby Jesus, have mercy on my soul!
Here's the thing. I wear busyness like a badge of honor. Only there's no honor to be had.
Busy is a sickness.
The American Psychological Association has published its Stress In America survey since 2007. They find that the majority of Americans recognize that their stress exceeds levels necessary to maintain good health. The most frequent reason they cite for not addressing the problem?
Being too busy.
It's a vicious cycle.
Dr. Susan Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a 2013 Boston Globe column, she wrote:
In the past few years, I've observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it's easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.
We've heard for years that excessive stress causes health problems. But notice that Dr. Koven didn't say stress. She said busyness.
And it's an epidemic.
Dr. Michael Marmot, a British epidemiologist, has studied stress and its effects, and found the root causes to be two types of busyness. Though he doesn't give them official names, he describes the most damaging as busyness without control, which primarily affects the poor. Their economic reality simply does not allow for downtime. They have to work two to three jobs to keep the family afloat. When you add kids to the mix, it becomes overwhelming, and the stress results in legitimate health problems.
The second type of busyness also results in health problems, but it is a sickness we bring on ourselves. Like voluntarily licking the door handle of a preschool bathroom or having a sweaty picnic in the Ball Pit at Chuck E. Cheese's.
It's busyness we control.
Ever since my conversation a month ago, I realized that my busyness is this second type. Busyness we control. In fact, many times I create rush and worry where none exists. Any typical morning, you can find me riding my kids like a couple of three-dollar mules in a sea of marbles, begging them to move faster.
"If you don't finish your waffles in the next 90 seconds, we're gonna be late!"
"Do you like being tardy?! 'Cause that's what you'll be if you don't hurry up and brush your teeth!"
The funny thing is, whether I prod or not, we always seem to get to school at the same time every day. Before the bell. And if we're late? Nothing bad really happens, but there is still the voice in my head telling me a couple of tardies today is a slippery slope that eventually leads to 5-10 years in Federal Prison.
After my conversation with my friend, I began to notice how much of my rushing was an overreaction to my "awfulizing" in my head. Most of the time, I manufacture urgency in hopes that it will create urgency in others. Instead, it only creates anxiety, resentment and spite. Which is absolutely counter-productive. And even in the cases where the urgency is real, it's often due to a packed schedule I created.
All of this made me wonder:
Why would a grown-ass man, with a brain and two opposable thumbs, decide to voluntarily create stress in his life?
I found the answer, and it's not pretty.
We are afraid of ourselves.
In America, we are defined by what we do. Our careers. What we produce. It's the first question asked at parties, and often the first tidbit of information we share with strangers. The implication is that if I am not busy doing something, I am somehow less than. Not worthy. Or at least worth less than those who are producing something.
Now, before you start to think this is just one guy's opinion, consider a recent study published in the journal Science. In one experiment, participants were left alone in a room for up to 15 minutes. When asked whether they liked the alone time, over half reported disliking it.
In subsequent studies, participants were given an electric shock, and then asked if they would pay money to avoid being shocked again. Not surprisingly, most said they would trade money to avoid pain. However, when these same people were left alone in a room for 15 minutes, nearly half chose to self-administer an electric shock rather than sit alone with their thoughts.
You read that right.
(Which is so not punny.)
Think about what this means. Just being is so painful that we are willing to hurt ourselves to avoid it.
And this is perhaps the saddest truth of all. I am created in the image and likeness of God, yet somehow that isn't good enough for me. So I fill my Facebook feed and my calendar with self-important busyness to avoid just being. In the process, I not only miss out on the peace and beauty that lies within myself, but I also miss seeing that same beauty in others, because my manufactured urgency has covered it up with anxiety and worry.
It's time I let my busyness rest in peace.
So my prayer today is this. That I stop defining myself by my doing, and start defining myself by my being. That I stop measuring time by the clock on the wall, and start measuring it by the experiences I share with those around me. And that I stop seeing my life as "busy," and instead, see it for what it truly is.
Writer's note: For the past month, I have tried my best to eliminate the word "busy" from my vocabulary. The result? I feel lighter. Now, when people ask how things are going, I just say, "Life is full." What works for you?