I recently listened to a podcast with a great riff by the author Tim Kreider on how we seem to pride ourselves on our “busy” lives. Tim points out that while this busyness makes us feel important, there’s also a huge downside to our nonstop activity—it takes away from our ability to be lazy.
Now, one man’s lazy is another man’s downtime, and Kreider is no slouch. He’s an accomplished author, who writes at least 5 hours a day before indulging in more leisurely pursuits. He refers to this downtime as a necessity, because when we’re idle it allows us to step back, survey the world and figure things out before moving on to our next order of busyness.
There’s just one problem for many of us: As much as we’d like to, we don’t have time to be lazy. We’re busy with kids, never-ending “to do” lists and time-eating 50-hour-a-week jobs. So how do we squeeze more out of our busy lives? How do we live a more fully engaged and spiritual life, when our hectic schedule is always threatening to overwhelm us?
If we can’t escape all this busyness, perhaps we need to start looking at life with a fresh set of eyes—alert to the positive things that are happening within our daily activities. That means paying greater attention to moments we often view as busy-work and/or a waste of time. This awareness is crucial, because as poet Ivon Prefontaine points out:
We only live in one space: the present. It is important to live where we are at this very moment as fully as we can.
So what’s it like to live fully in the moment? An example comes by way of James Martin in his book Becoming Who You Are. Martin tells the story of the writer Andres Dubus and his reflections on encountering the holy in his daily life. It started innocently enough when Dubus was making lunch for his children one morning—what most of us think of as a chore—and sensed that there was more to his actions than what it seemed. He discovered that:
Each moment is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments.
Finding the sacred in sandwich-making is a hint as to how we might look at many of our “I’m busy” activities. Might giving your kid a ride be a chance for conversation and bonding? Might washing the dishes be an opportunity to engage in silent meditation? Might even the dullest workplace be a chance to connect with others who share similar problems, hopes and dreams?
Like Dubus, in his groundbreaking book A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore also talks of consciously partaking in sacraments in our everyday lives. He tells us that Henry David Thoreau believed that “just getting up early can be a sacrament, a spiritual act.” Moore advises us to plan for these moments each day, tacking them on to our regular schedule:
Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule…set up a few regular activities, like meditation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after ten p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quite walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.
Returning to Tim Kreider, he offers a wise piece of advice: Choose time over money, for our best investment is in spending time with those we love. And who can argue with the notion of choosing downtime over work, especially when it involves being with those closest to us. (As the story goes, no one has ever been on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office.)
But if you, like me, can’t escape a long workweek and have a ton of obligations outside of the office to boot, there’s just one option. Start getting more out of each moment, being mindful of each step and each action you take. We are best served by remembering the words of the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam:
Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life.
This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, April 25, 2015.