Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Disease of Busy

"Somewhere we read, “The unexamined life is not worth living… ” How are we supposed to live, to examine, to be, to become, to be fully human when we are so busy?
.......Omid Safi
I subscribe to a wonderful series of articles and interviews, ONBEING.ORG.  Recently I read a great article by Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, that struck a deep chord.  Judging from the hundreds of responses he got to his article, I am not alone.  I take the liberty of sharing his  article below.

I have been feeling for a long time that I need to increasingly "go dark", simplify, drop out.  I need the being here now that allows us to send down our dark taproots into the rich soil of a more contemplative life.  The "river beneath the river of the world."  One cannot get there if life is a long laundry list, if life is moving so fast that those sustaining "conversations" are reduced to Tweets.

I seem to have coffee shop Satoris.  Or used to.  As I sit here, coming up for air in the ocean of laptops surrounding me, I remember a conversation I had with an old man at Cafe Trieste.  I was much younger then, and I think I was trying to impress him.  I remember telling him about how I wanted to travel here, travel there, how all my friends were flying around the world.........and he broke my monologue with a strange comment.  He said "It's a form of greed".  I've often thought about that, with a twinge. I didn't understand him at the time,   Greed is not just an accumulation of things, it is also an excessive accumulation of stimulation and desire, and it keeps us dancing frenetically in the red shoes.  While so many beautiful and tender moments are not recognized.

It seems to me that what must be engaged in our human evolution, if there is to be any further human evolution,  is not only to deeply converse with each other,  but the Conversation now needs to include the whole world as well, the great ecology of life we participate in, the roots.  And the essence of Conversation is I have to ask myself, how can I, or anyone else, possibly Listen to much of anything if we are so busy, busy, busy...............

I think sometimes (as well as the author)  of a kind of  communion with my fellow humans  I crave, a communion and genuine connection that seems ever elusive in today's world.  As much as I appreciate the technology that allows me to write this on a Blog, there are so many times I also come away from the "magic box" feeling dry, brittle.  

As I sit at a table in a coffee shop, surrounded by walls of impregnable laptops, each fellow coffee drinker immersed in Cyberspace, I admit I feel like someone in a strange new world I don't really understand.  Sometimes.  I remember wistfully the days of sitting in coffee houses in Berkeley, long before personal computers.........I remember sitting there with the steam of the espresso machines rising, a book on the table maybe for camouflage, and looking around to see if there was a conversation to be had among the many conversations going on at circular marble tables around me.  How different this scene seems to me, looking back over those years.  Well, I have complained enough.  Time to see if I can change things.

 The Disease of Being Busy


 I saw a dear friend a few days ago. I stopped by to ask her how she was doing, how her family was. She looked up, voice lowered, and just whimpered: “I’m so busy… I am so busy… have so much going on.” Almost immediately after, I ran into another friend and asked him how he was. Again, same tone, same response: “I’m just so busy… got so much to do.” The tone was exacerbated, tired, even overwhelmed. And it’s not just adults.

When we moved to North Carolina about ten years ago, we were thrilled to be moving to a city with a great school system. We found a diverse neighborhood, filled with families. Everything felt good, felt right. After we settled in, we went to one of the friendly neighbors, asking if their daughter and our daughter could get together and play. The mother, a really lovely person, reached for her phone and pulled out the calendar function. She scrolled… and scrolled… and scrolled. She finally said: “She has a 45-minute opening two and half weeks from now. The rest of the time it’s gymnastics, piano, and voice lessons. She’s just…. so busy.”

Horribly destructive habits start early, really early. How did we end up living like this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?Whatever happened to a world in which kids get muddy, get dirty, get messy, and heavens, get bored? Do we have to love our children so much that we over schedule them, making them stressed and busy — just like us? What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?

How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be? Somewhere we read, “The unexamined life is not worth living… for a human.” How are we supposed to live, to examine, to be, to become, to be fully human when we are so busy? This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and well being. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.
Since the 1950s, we have had so many new technological innovations that we thought (or were promised) would make our lives easier, faster, simpler. Yet, we have no more “free” or leisurely time today than we did decades ago.

For some of us, the “privileged” ones, the lines between work and home have become blurred. We are on our devices. All. The. Freaking. Time.  Smart phones and laptops mean that there is no division between the office and home. When the kids are in bed, we are back online.

One of my own daily struggles is the avalanche of email. I often refer to it as my jihad against email. I am constantly buried under hundreds and hundreds of emails, and I have absolutely no idea how to make it stop. I’ve tried different techniques: only responding in the evenings, not responding over weekends, asking people to schedule more face-to-face time. They keep on coming, in volumes that are unfathomable: personal emails, business emails, hybrid emails. And people expect a response — right now. I, too, it turns out… am so busy.

The reality looks very different for others. For many, working two jobs in low-paying sectors is the only way to keep the family afloat. Twenty percent of our children are living in poverty, and too many of our parents are working minimum wage jobs just to put a roof over their head and something resembling food on the table. We are so busy.

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is yourhaal?  What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.  Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.

I don’t have any magical solutions. All I know is that we are losing the ability to live a truly human life.  We need a different relationship to work, to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about “leaning in” or faster iPhones. We want to be truly human.

W. B. Yeats once wrote:  “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.”

How exactly are we supposed to examine the dark corners of our soul when we are so busy? How are we supposed to live the examined life?

I am always a prisoner of hope, but I wonder if we are willing to have the structural conversation necessary about how to do that, how to live like that. Somehow we need a different model of organizing our lives, our societies, our families, our communities.

I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing? I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence; I am in touch enough with my own heart and soul to know how I fare, and I know how to express the state of my heart.

How is the state of your heart today?  Let us insist on a type of human-to-human connection where when one of us responds by saying, “I am just so busy,” we can follow up by saying, “I know, love. We all are. But I want to know how your heart is doing.”

OMID SAFI  is a columnist for On Being.Org .    He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion.


Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Beautiful! And wow, so true.

Valerianna said...

YES!! Thanks so much for sharing this, Lauren. I will be sharing the article with colleagues and my Mindful Choices class... and I so resonated with the what the elder said to you about wanting to go everywhere, etc. being a form of greed. I've been feeling this a lot lately, without having the words to describe it. THAT is it. Blessings to you and wishing you moments of boredom!

lauren raine said...

Thanks to you both! Yes, it was painful for me to have to admit that in my own way I was greedy, wanting an endless stream of exotic experiences........and so often failing to see the magic occuring right in my own backyard.