Escape From the Busy Trap

At college graduation this year, an adept student told me about the class she most remembered. I teach religion, the Bible to be exact, and she took a course on the book of Acts. One day, after I had graded their essays in my usual frenetic fit of exasperation at bad grammar and disconnected thoughts, I threw aside my content-driven plans for class and dug out my favorite poem, "Adam's Curse," by William Butler Yeats. The first stanza reads like this:

We sat together at one summer's end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,

And you and I, and talked of poetry.

I said, "A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.

No doubt you can guess the words I cajoled my students to consider. "A line will take us hours maybe." Hours? Maybe ... 180 minutes or more? Some of my students -- and most college students, if recent studies are right -- spend that much time on an entire essay! Not Yeats. Not the famed Irish poet. If we divide Yeats' line, A line will take us hours maybe, into 180 minutes, that's, gulp, 27 minutes per word!

And what do we get for slowing down, for sitting peaceably at summer's end, talking of poetry? We get called an idler by the noisy set, the productive people, the bankers, the schoolmasters, the clergy, the active folk, the busy people.

I just read "The 'Busy' Trap," a New York Times Opinionator blog post about anxiety by Tim Kreider. I get it. When my students want to meet for lunch or take a walk or ask me to write a letter of reference, they invariably start, "I know you're busy but..." Those who know me only from class assume I'm busy -- too busy for them. I suppose they mean it as a compliment, like saying, "I know you're too important," but it's not a compliment. It's a reflex. Everyone is harried. Everyone's day is overfull. Everyone is busy. No one's talking of poetry. No one is, with Yeats, articulating sweet sounds together. So many are, in Tim Kreider's words, "anxious and guilty when they aren't either working or doing something to promote their work." What can we do about our addiction to busyness?

Well, I told you I teach the Bible, where people often flourish in glorious unproductivity. Take, for example, Daniel, the Sunday and Sabbath school denizen of the lion's den. Many of us know about that harried night. But we may be less familiar with the way in which Daniel is said to have extraordinary wisdom and spirit in him for three generations -- during the reigns of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar and Darius. Half a dozen references to the spirit -- the pulse of divine vitality that gives Daniel unparalleled wisdom -- populate these chapters. Yet not once, not a single time, does the spirit occur with a verb. The only action the spirit takes, which isn't really taking action at all, is to be in Daniel. Yet even as I say this, I'm misleading you, since there isn't a single verb used to describe the spirit in the original Aramaic of Daniel. Not a one. If we translated these stories literally, word by word, we would come up with something like this: "because in him an excellent spirit" or "because in him the spirit of God."

Take a minute to think about this insight, because it is potentially life-changing. Daniel doesn't receive the spirit. He's not baptized in the spirit. The spirit isn't poured out on him. The spirit doesn't rush or rest on him. The spirit doesn't move him or speak to him or prompt him or teach him. The spirit simply is. No, that's not even right. The spirit simply -- in him.

And whom do we remember after all these years? A refugee named Daniel. Wise beyond his years. Wise with a wisdom recognized by three generations of foreign rulers. Why? Because Daniel was busy? Not at all. We remember Daniel because he lived simply: When all the other swarthy and brawny men being trained for leadership were feted with wine and rich meats, he ate his veggies. We remember Daniel because he was not ambitious: When others jealously plotted his demise, he simply bided his time, much of it in prison. We remember Daniel because he stuck to his scruples: When others bowed to the great statue, the emblem of empire, he simply stood apart and paid a steep price for integrity.

I'm not sure whether you think these stories ever happened. That doesn't really matter because the challenge of this verbless spirituality remains intact whether we think it happened or not. That, of course, is the power of story. And this is what the story of Daniel teaches us about the difference between Yeats' noisy set and the idler: those attain the most who may produce the least. Those achieve the most who plot and plan and push others aside the least. Those are the most spirited who simply are -- I mean, who simply. No verb can capture the power of that insight.

How then to escape the busy trap? Go back to the top of this post and read Yeats again -- slowly this time, line by perfect line, basking in the waning warmth of a summer sun. Then, if you're not too busy, dust off your Bible and read that familiar children's story in the first six chapters of Daniel, paying close attention to every time nothing, absolutely nothing, happens. Because a line will take us hours maybe.