One week before my family ended a ten-month stay in South Africa, I had a dream.
In the dream, an old white-haired woman looked me in the eye and said: “All the problems in America start with one thing.” She leaned forward and said in a crackly voice: “Too little time.”
These words rang in my ears through the first weeks back in the United States.
In those first weeks, I accomplished a lot: several dozen boxes unpacked from storage, three pigs purchased and settled on our property (complete with requisite fencing, feeder, and water), eight chicks growing in a box in our basement, kids set free to arrange their new bedrooms, forms completed for my new job and the kids return to school, a handful of friends visited, two children’s birthdays celebrated, a bedbugs scare averted, and even a few pages of a dissertation written.
But we’d been back to our home in the United States for three weeks when I lost it.
My husband and I were allegedly having a “date.” Far from having the energy to leave our home, we sat together on our porch. It was at least a step better than disappearing into separate rooms to fold laundry and write overdue email responses.
One hour into the date, I realized all we had talked about was getting things done.
“I’m just so tired,” I told my husband.
“Let’s go to bed early so you’re less tired tomorrow,” he responded, ever the kind problem solver.
That’s not the answer I was hoping for.
The “Be efficient” diagnosis for busyness
I realized in that moment that we’d been like doctors who misdiagnose the name, cause, and then the cure for an illness.
Our diagnosis went like this:
Problem: Inability to get everything done.
Cause: Too much wasted time, poor organization.
Prescription: Move more quickly, expand the productive hours in the day, and get more done.
In airport bookstores there are dozens of book titles that diagnose our American crisis like this. “Get more done,” “Save time,” “Build a super-efficient team,” they promise us.
Our evening date followed that line of diagnosis: plan the most important things, work systematically, wake up early, get just enough sleep and coffee to stay focused all day. Those solutions dealt with symptoms, but they left one problem: I was still unhappy.
Finding a better kind of busy
In the conversation and days that followed, I re-diagnosed the ailment to look like this:
Problem: I am stressing.
Cause: Fears, pride, lack of trust, self-reliance...the list goes on.
Prescription: Walk in grace.
No matter how much time I try to “save,” there are certain things I believe I’m just supposed to do. I will be a mom and wife. I will write a dissertation. I will take the rare faculty job I just got. I will be a homeowner. I will be part of a church and friendships.
No matter how we fight busyness with efficiency, systems, lists, and reminders to say no, there are certain things we have to say yes to. In some seasons, those things just make life busy. That means we have to figure out how to live well while living busy.
With the method we had been using — ultra-efficiency — all we focused on was getting things done. Our whole year was looking like a series of humps to get over: kids' birthdays, house guests, my husband’s work trip, starting teaching. I don’t want to see life as one long series of busy events to survive. There must be ways to live in the present, even while busy.
God must not mind some busy times, because Jesus spent a lot of his life busy. Jesus must have had a mental to-do list a mile long.
But he did not run around stressing. He walked. He saw every human being in front of him. He touched one person after another, without rush. He knew which interruptions were distractions, and he knew how to convert and divert those distractions into what did matter. He postponed responsibilities, even the healing of a dying person. Whether in crowds or quiet mountains, he loved God the same. When he greeted old friends, he didn’t grump about how busy he’d been.
All this takes prayer.
I do not need more hours in a day. I need the mysterious grace to follow Jesus’s example amidst the busy, not just to rage against it. I need courage to step away to quiet places, grace to accept my human limits, peace in the midst of storms, and calm before outstretched, demanding hands.
The old lady in my dream was on the right track, but I don’t believe she got it quite right. I don’t believe there’s too little time in the United States. I believe there’s just a lot of frantic people afraid to accept God’s grace for the human limits on our time. Busy won’t always be the way it is. But when it is, there’s still enough grace to embrace the goodness in front of us.