- Brad Nelson
Last week I attended a gathering with sixty other pastors, priests, and worship leaders. It was beautiful, inspiring, and also sad. These were highly intelligent, productive, thoughtful leaders, but they all shared something else in common. We began our time by each offering three words describing how we were arriving at the gathering. Some arrived hopeful. Many arrived curious, but almost all arrived with some variation of the following words: Tired. Exhausted. Worn out. Faint. Threadbare. Never mind that these were all people who worked in church world. I suspect the exhaustion isn’t limited to church. In fact, I more than suspect it. I know it. We all do.
In 2009, speaking to the World Economic Forum Desmond Tutu observed that in our culture, “Stomach ulcers are status symbols.” There is a kind of swagger accompanying our busyness. We bemoan the pace we keep, but our bantering back and forth about how full our lives are has the unmistakable quality of pride. To be busy is to be important, productive, necessary, vital even. The more you produce, the more valuable you are, or so it goes.
But this productivity and value come at a cost. When all we ever do is produce, we gradually become resistant to stillness. Years ago, I was burned out and sought the guidance of a mentor. He asked me, “What restores you? What fills you back up?” At the time, his question didn’t even make sense. He might as well have asked me, “What color is the number three?” My life was so shaped by producing, the concept of receiving something into myself that I hadn’t generated on my own was foreign.
It started in middle school. We’d be assigned group work, and I’d get stuck with two classmates who obviously had no intention of contributing. So, I’d shoulder the load. Later, I learned what I’d experienced in the classroom would happen in the workplace as an adult, it just looked more sophisticated. I once complained to my boss, “People around here are allergic to responsibility.” He rolled his eyes and replied, “Welcome to being a leader.” Eventually, taking responsibility came with recognition. I was a hard worker. I was driven. People could count on me to “get it done.” So while I harbored my angst at the slackers, I delighted in the recognition. Of course, the problem with being recognized for your productivity is that people will keep asking for more. Suddenly, I found myself hesitant to hand things off to people. I’ll be able to do this quicker myself, I’d catch myself thinking. Or, they won’t do as good of a job on this as I can. I needed to do the project, all of it, because whatever it was, it was important and needed to be done just right. I’d moved from being irritated to shoulder the load, to proud, to unwilling and unable to allow anyone else to help.
When you drill down to the bedrock of this self-inflicted busyness you find a darkness as old as the world. Most of our frantic busyness is anxiety masquerading in the socially acceptable form of productivity. Ultimately, what we frantically busy people believe in our bones is that no one can deliver the security and the peace we require. No one, that is, except ourselves. And it is just this that the serpent suggests to the first humans when, at the beginning of the Bible, things go terribly wrong. “God is holding out on them. God hasn’t given them everything they need. There’s more to be had, but the only way to get it is to seize it for themselves,” says the serpent. So they do, and in doing so they lose the very thing they sought; life itself. Busyness—the kind of frantic need to produce I’ve described above—is a kind of soul sickness, and it can never be cured with more achieving or conquering or winning or building or producing. The cure is something we do not generate on our own. And it can only be received by those who periodically allow their hands, heads, and hearts to be idle long enough to recognize that the world’s still spinning, and that we are both far less important than we believe and far more vital than we could ever dream.