We recently enjoyed a week in New Zealand – about five days with some of our children and then two blessed days on our own. It was like a tonic for our soul and our marriage. Long walks with relaxed afternoons soaking up beautiful vistas and abundant wildlife.
One such cheeky local was a Fantail – a small native bird that sashayed its tail and flitted about our feet. This friendly avian accompanied us on one of our walks charming us with its daring proximity and frustrating us with constant restlessness when we tried to film it.
The Fantail seemed too distracted to rest. It flew from perch to perch with a quick swish-swish of its tail feathers at each location. As an image of perpetual, erratic motion, it is a wonderful metaphor for modern life – for our life – most of the time.
Addicted to busy
Busyness has become a bit of status symbol in our culture. Ask someone what they’ve been up to and we hardly ever hear confessions of idleness or boredom.
Being busy affirms our importance. Subconsciously, if a colleague is not busy, we judge them as less relevant, less useful, less interesting. No one wants to fall into that category, so even when we’re not busy, we’ll often pass it off as if we are.
Busyness is often an excuse we use for bad manners. Forgot to return that phone call? … so sorry, I’ve been hellishly busy. Playing our options before committing to an invitation? … busyness is the go-to excuse for replying after the rsvp date.
For many of us, busyness is a bit of an escape. We use our busyness to distract us from thinking about uncomfortable realities or facing into internal conflicts. Perhaps this strategy is most evident when we are grieving the loss of a loved one – we often say, “If I just keep busy, I won’t get overwhelmed by my emotions.”
While it’s an understandable and useful strategy when others are relying on us to hold it together, it’s dangerous to health when busyness becomes endemic. Too many of us end up living lives of dulled emotions; when we repress our intensely painful emotions, we also temper our capacity for joy.
Using busyness to avoid the encounter with our interior life is an unholy way to live. Holiness (or wholeness) requires us to integrate all of who we are – the strong, the weak, the beautiful, the ugly.
We’re not advocating for laziness here; it’s important to be productive and purposeful with our lives. There’s great dignity in using our gifts to serve others through our labour.
We’re simply pointing out that not all busyness is productive and purposeful. And some busyness is profoundly unhealthy for us physically and psychologically and needs to be challenged.
Busyness: the enemy of relationships
Busyness is not only detrimental to our inner life, it is also toxic to relationships. Relationships thrive on time; scandalous, wasteful time with a purpose of simply being present to each other.
We’ve all had that disappointing experience when a spouse or friend gets lost on their device and we’re left waiting for their attention. Mea culpa! Yet how much of our frantic devotion to our devices is really necessary or even enjoyable?
Whether it’s our marriage or our relationships with family or friends, we can’t avoid the need spend time together giving our full attention to the person before us. Busyness steals our limited attention from these more worthy recipients.
Finding the balance
We’re all familiar with the gospel story of Martha and Mary. Martha is a Fantail. She’s busy flitting about the kitchen and complains to Jesus that her sister, Mary, who is reclining at his feet, is leaving Martha to do all the work. Jesus gently rebukes her: “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Busyness versus presence. It’s as difficult to get the balance today as it was at the time of Christ.
There’s a time for busy and a time for unbusy – for resting our mind and body and giving our full attention to another. That other might be our spouse, a child, a parent, or our God.
This kind of ‘rest’ is not laziness or idleness – it’s important rejuvenation and perspective checking. Like a mini-retreat, it allows to step out of our busy distractions and reconnect with the purpose of our life.
Unbusy is like an artist that steps back from his work to get the overall view of his creation. He spends hours in close, absorbed by the details, focussed only on one section. Stepping back, he sees the details in context – he gets a perspective that helps him keep those details in harmony with the overall purpose of the work.
Three tips for the unbusy couple
Breaking the busy dependency doesn’t happen spontaneously. It takes focussed effort. Here are our tips for being more unbusy.
1: Daily micro-sabbatical
The word ‘sabbatical’ is derived from ‘sabbath’ – the day of rest commanded by God after the busyness of creating the world over six days.
A daily micro-sabbatical of just 5 mins (or more) to step out of busy is a powerful discipline. This is about being attentive to our interior life, calming our racing thoughts, and reconnecting with our life’s purpose.
It’s a wonderful way to pray but not the busy words of rote prayers which have their own value. Rather, the micro-sabbatical is more inclined to meditation, contemplation, and a mindful awareness of all that is happening in and around us at that moment.
Be still, breathe deeply and connect with who you truly are – a beloved son or daughter of our heavenly Father.
2: Daily marriage unbusy
Today, we heard of another couple in our parish that has split up. Although we don’t know the details, we are sure their busy professional commitments were a contributing factor in the decline of their marriage.
Our marriage is our most important earthly relationship. When we married, we accepted the call of the Church to be a couple for the Church. Marriage is not just a private relationship, it’s a vocation to make God present in our world through our sacramental love.
To stay healthy, our marriage needs unbusy time and attention. At least 15 mins every day, longer if we are disconnected or traversing troubled times.
We’ve adopted a practice of carving out time for us each evening. We’ll often take a walk after dinner and just decompress. Sometimes we pray the Rosary, sometimes we just walk in silence appreciating the gardens and wildlife of our neighbourhood.
The important thing is not to fill this unbusy time with chatter, problem solving or planning. Although these activities are important they don’t really meet our needs for unbusy.
Make it about being present. And remember, words are optional.
3: Joint recreational interests
Recreation is important, but it will always be competing with our relationship if it’s a singular pursuit. Whether it’s trekking, gardening, music, movies, cooking, theatre, tennis, or martial arts – find something you both enjoy and make it a shared experience.
We began our dating relationship with a shared interest in astronomy – a pursuit of Byron’s that made for many fond memories star gazing under a doona in the back yard.
Later we took some hang-gliding lessons together. Regretfully, we had to abandon them before we had established our skills – pregnancy is really not compatible with this high-risk sport. Subsequently, we took up scuba diving during our first child-free holiday and that has been a twenty-year shared interest.
Whatever it is, make at least one of your recreational pursuits something you can do together. This means that your unbusy personal time doesn’t have to be at the expense of your couple time.
Too many of us see rest as an indulgence; a luxury we can’t afford and feel guilty laying claim to. Yet these retreats and moments of rest play a vital role in keeping us on track with the purpose of life: growing in holiness through our relationships.
Unbusy deserves priority. Let’s cease regarding it as an indulgence and start prioritising it as a necessity.