Recently, I flipped through an old book in my library with an arresting title: “When I Relax, I Feel Guilty.” The author, Tim Hansel, confesses in the book: “I am dominated by ‘should’s,’ ‘ought to’s,’ and ‘musts.’ I awaken unrefreshed in the morning, with a tired kind of resentment, and hurry through the day trying to uncover and meet the demands of others. Days are not lived but endured.”
If Hansel was feeling that way in 1979, when he wrote the book, I wonder how he is faring today. Looking back on those days now, 1979 seems downright relaxed and peaceful compared to 2019.
In his new book, “Seculosity,” David Zahl tells of a University of North Dakota researcher named Ann Burnett who has spent a considerable amount of time collecting and analyzing Americans’ Christmas letters. After combing through five decades in her archive, she discovered that the letters from recent years focus primarily on how busy people are. The Christmas letters from previous decades were filled with gratitude for the past and hopes for the future, but recent letters are all about busy-ness.
I grimaced when I read that because I’ve written a few of those letters myself. When I think about the Christmas letters I’ve sent out in recent years, they were mostly about how busy we are. I had to let our friends know that we’re engaged and important people — taking trips, writing books, keeping grandkids, working out at the gym — with hardly a moment to catch our breath. Don’t ever think that we might be getting old and sedentary. No sir, we are busier than we’ve ever been.
Our friends, of course, sent us Christmas letters that attempted to out-busy us, so that we would know that they are important people, too. We seem to be in an undeclared competition to see who can burn the most midnight oil.
Somehow our culture has bought into the notion that busy-ness is next to godliness. Though we sometimes complain about how hectic our lives are, most of us wear our busy-ness as a badge of success.
If we’re so busy that we can hardly find a free moment, it tells everyone that we’re productive people who work hard and make a significant difference in the world. It means that we “amount to something,” that we’re not sitting idly by while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. It means that our resume is impressive and that our obituary will be impressive, as well.
But if we’re honest, we would probably admit that our infatuation with being busy has produced a society of tired, uptight people with high blood pressure and a dependence on prescription drugs.
On a more personal level, we might admit that it’s been a long time since we had a good laugh, fished a quiet stream or stretched out in the backyard to watch the stars. We might even admit that our busy-ness has not brought us the abundant life we thought it would. And if we’re really honest, we might even admit that other people are not as impressed or interested in our busy-ness as we think they are.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and notice how God takes care of them. He says to relax into the gracious sovereignty of God and not spend time worrying about what we will eat or what we will wear. As with most of the things Jesus tells us to do, those words are easier to read than to live.
I’m not exactly sure what I need to do to be able to relax and not feel guilty. I’ve been hooked into the I-am-what-I-do mentality of our culture most of my life.
But perhaps I can take a baby step in that direction when I write our Christmas letter.
Judson Edwards lives in Cedar Park and is the author of twelve books, including “Quiet Faith: An Introvert’s Guide to Spiritual Survival.”