Constant state of busy-ness warps definition of fulfillment

TIME SAVER

September 11, 1994|By Susan Hipsley | Susan Hipsley,Special to The Sun

Having an excess of things was the status symbol of the '80s. Having an excess of things to do is the '90s badge of success.

Americans are caught up in a maelstrom of over-planning, overbooking, overestimating their ability to juggle four sharp knives, three flaming torches, two cream puffs and a bowl of cherries. For just one day, note how often you hear or say some version of "I'm too busy." It's become a form of cultural machismo, and almost everyone complains about it.

Take this cartoon, for example: A dejected-looking fellow stands apart from a group of happy people who are going out somewhere together. A stern-faced man stands between the solitary figure and the group. He's holding up a restraining hand and saying, "You can't go with us anymore, Jason. You work part-time."

We don't know why Jason is working part-time. He doesn't look the age to be in semi-retirement and has no apparent handicap, so one could be excused for indulging in the fantasy that Jason might have chosen to reduce his workload.

But by doing that he committed the cultural sin of our times. He opted to slow down. Now his co-workers are banishing him to a social Sahara because he will no longer be as busy -- read "important," "worthy," "interesting," "productive" -- as they are.

One explanation for our obsession with busy-ness is that it's a revival of national Puritanism -- idle hands are the Devil's workshop -- but ratcheted up to the intensity of modern life. If we've always equated being busy with being a good person, it must follow that today staying dizzyingly busy is a morally superior lifestyle.

We're also fearful of being judged inadequate. Roger Merrill, a co-author of the best-selling book "First Things First," and co-founder of the Covey Leadership Center, attributes our idolization of those who seemingly "do it all" to the American tendency to worship competence.

Being competent is an admirable trait. However, he says, Americans now value competency more than character. "We can recognize character, but if someone is competent but not

necessarily someone of character, we'll cut them slack." Or, as the saying goes, nice guys finish last.

Mr. Merrill says people think "all this running to and fro is a way to feel personal security. 'Look at me. I'm important. Look at all the people who depend on me.' "

But instead of feeling spiritually energized by all the good things we do, we feel depleted by our constant sense of urgency. Says Mr. Merrill, "Urgency takes on the characteristics of an addiction. Being busy becomes a substitute for developing relationships, for sharing, intimacy." It's a counterfeit relationship with the world. As a result, he says, "we feel empty.' "

What we end up with is a warp-speed journey of the spirit, a pained and ultimately fruitless search for fulfillment.

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman recently wrote about an insight she gained during a working "vacation": "We pride

ourselves on speed -- and forget that time goes by fast enough. The trick is to slow down long enough to listen, smell, touch, look, live."

How to decelerate, still accomplish what's important and find true balance -- not the artificial balance of allocating fragments of time for work, family and play, but the harmony with ourselves and others -- will be the subject of future columns.

The first step, however, is to stop judging ourselves and others by the Busy Standard. As a measurement of worth, it's like substituting fool's gold for the real thing.

IN TIME

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