“Toil mastered everything, relentless toil. And the pressure of pinching poverty.”
Virgil, The Georgics

Most people I speak to say that there are too busy. For many, this busy-ness is a significant source of stress. We feel trapped; we feel constrained to attend to more things than we have time for.

So we live in an almost constant state of crisis, of heightened adrenal saturation. We move quickly from one thing to the next, feeling that we give proper attention to few things and do a half-baked job on the rest. We excuse ourselves because “we don’t have time” to do better, but something in us rebels against this constant self-exculpation.

Often we are acting from a real sense of responsibility. We take it as a matter of character to be willing to endure it all, and get everything done. So we push ourselves, and tell ourselves this is how it has to be.

And sometimes, indeed, it might just have to be this way. At least for a time. But I think we also need to recognize that there might be a real problem that we need to address. Perhaps we are too busy: too busy in the sense that it is incumbent on us to make ourselves less busy, somehow.

Our discernment and deliberation might look like this: Are there steps that I can and should take to thin out my commitments, for the sake of inner peace, and for the sake of the responsibilities, and persons (!), who might be suffering from my being overly busy?

Once we have honestly reckoned with this, then we can embrace our responsibilities with peace and confidence, and hopefully also a sense of humor.

Further, I think we do well to be aware of the extra burden that our modern context often places on us. I am convinced that common practices and patterns of the almost universal ‘suburban’ context, for lack of a better name, push us and at times require us to juggle more than a person reasonably should. I will point to one aspect of this.

A man I know who spent time living in an Amish community once shared an insight. He had wondered how the Amish could be very busy and productive while seemingly never rushed or overly burdened. Then he realized: so much of what they do had multiple levels of value. Many of their activities, for instance, were simultaneously productive, and social, and good for their bodies. At the end of their work day they had already had quality time together, and great exercise, and often recreation too. This makes a remarkable difference in the busy-ness of their day.

As Virgil’s words indicate, the requirements of the human condition will almost always entail certain burdens. But much remains in our power, as individuals and as a community. By putting first things first, and being intentional about our living patterns, I think we can reduce some unnecessary stress of being overly-busy. And the busy-ness that remains can take its meaning from the relationships and higher goods that require it.

A word on the IMAGE: It is a detail from Leon Lhermitte’s (1844-1925) “Paying of the Harvesters.” I must say that when I see this mower of fields, I feel that I see a man who knows relentless toil, but who is not mastered by it. He looks like a man whose work provides the simple rhythm of a life well lived. Even if I cannot replicate the simple dignity of his daily toils, I can try to replicate an inner attitude that puts faithfulness before success, and pursues excellence of a craft for the sake of those he serves.

Stress and Its Causes Mini-Series

I. Sorting Out Stress

II: Stress: The Lack of Presence in Our Lives

III. Stress: Too Much to Do

IV: Stress: News as a Backdrop for Life

V: The Stress of Relating to Our Spouse, or Anyone Else of the Other Sex

 

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics. In the Divine Comedy he appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.

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