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Be busy, always.
It’s what I was taught, growing up. On our family farm there were always things to do. Getting ready for mealtime, and baking cookies and apple crisps. Getting laundry off the clothesline. Snapping beans, or pitting cherries, and helping get those and innumerable other fruits and vegetables canned or frozen in their time. Cleaning and mowing and dusting and weeding.
It’s not that I never had time to myself. I did. But by the time I was old enough to enjoy a book, I knew my mom’s approaching footsteps meant I’d probably be summoned to help with the next thing she was ready to tackle.
I hadn’t thought about this for a while. Then the other day someone used the word “lazy” to describe me. They didn’t mean it as an overall assessment, but on a particular day, about a specific project, they used that word. The vehemence of my reaction surprised me. “Lazy? My mother did not raise me to be lazy!”
“Lazy” was a ghastly rebuke, to my ears. It must have been that, when uttered by people who loved me, growing up. You wouldn’t want, ever, to be described as lazy. That description was right up there with “liar” or “cheat” or “scoundrel.”
Looking back, though, I’m not sure be busy, always has served me all that well. I notice myself get twitchy when I don’t have something to do. At work, that means I will stir up something new if I find myself with less than a packed schedule. Yes, I know that’s called “workaholism.” And no, I don’t celebrate that.
At home, it means it’s hard to just sit and watch TV. I inevitably reach for something to do, whether that’s work, or knitting, or puzzles, or my phone. My brain is always wondering what I should be doing right now—not in terms of fun, but in terms of tasks.
In fact, I hardly know what to do with “down time” when I have it. For some years, I’ve been in the practice of making a list, periodically, of things that I’ll enjoy doing. Take a nap. Read poetry. Make blueberry muffins. I need the list because I forget the fun things I like to do!
I’m more and more convinced, looking back, that all along I should have been learning how to be lazy. Not lazy as in “shiftless.” Lazy as in relaxed, peaceful, rested. Lazy as a word that I needn’t recoil at. Lazy not as a slur but as a virtue. “Why, yes, I am being lazy today, thank you very much.”
To get there, I’d have to buck up against not just my upbringing but also my faith tradition. This call to busy-ness shows up in some foundational instructions John Wesley offered his clergy, in the movement that was a forerunner of the United Methodist Church. He said: “Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time….” In today’s words, that’s be busy, always. The world is your parish; there’s only so much time. Get to it!
Which may have been really good advice in Wesley’s day, as he exhorted new preachers who may not have been raised with the strictness and prudence of Wesley’s own experience (and mine). But when we apply that teaching to today, with our 24-7 busy-ness and instantaneous accessibility of messages and information and distractions, John Wesley’s teaching (and my mother’s!) tends to reinforce some of our worst tendencies rather than correct our bad ones. The advice to be busy, always leaves little room for rest and mindfulness, prayer and restorative fun.
Thomas Merton says what we sacrifice is peace:
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
Another contemplative observes how easy it is for us to fall into the pattern of overcommitment, out of an inability to say “no”:
We calculated that the task had to be done, and we saw no one ready to undertake it. We calculated the need, and then calculated our time, and decided maybe we could squeeze it in somewhere. But the decision was a heady decision, not made within the sanctuary of the soul.
The first time I read those words, I was stunned. This writer had been listening in to the conversation in my head. And in many others’. He rightly calls us to a different orientation, with words we be busy, always people urgently need to hear. What would it take to be fully, happily lazy, some of the time?
That’s the question I’m playing with as I head into the summer. I’ll be leading my congregation in a summer of focusing on Sabbath. Not the buttoned-up, limiting, overly pious kind that characterized some earlier generations. But the kind of freeing, connecting, restful, playful time that I think God intended for us. God was lazy on the seventh day, and commanded us to join in. I think I’m ready!
So, c’mon and join me, friends. And be ready to smile and nod when I ask you, “Are you being lazy today?”