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The Busyness Fetish

I’ve been retired for a few years now, and I’m still trying to work out what that is supposed to mean. Retirement is like menopause. Despite the fact that it is a natural transition in life, most of us don’t really know what to expect because it’s just not something people talk about very much.

I loved my work, but I enjoyed giving up the tedium and responsibility that comes with any job. What I was unprepared for was finding out that I had no idea how not to be busy, and even worse, how much my self-worth depended upon my being busy. I am still taken back when I meet someone, and they ask me what I do. I find myself reciting a laundry list of projects, hoping to sound interesting and engaged. I really should develop a line to use such as: “I do Pilates, watch British crime dramas, and play with my grandchildren. But I have weekends off and I am my own boss.”

Busyness has become a status symbol in our culture. Research led by Columbia marketing professor Silvia Bellezza shows that people perceive others who are busy, and who use products that signal that they are busy (like Bluetooth headsets for multitasking), to be important and impressive. In addition, studies led by psychologist, Jared Celniker, have found that across the United States, France and South Korea, people consider those who exert high effort to be “morally admirable,”regardless of their output. Unlike the days of yore, work, not leisure, is now a signifier of dominant social status, or as Gordon Gekko puts it in the movie Wall Street, “Lunch is for wimps.”

Recently, I forgot my earbuds and was forced to take a walk without the distraction of music or a podcast or a recorded book, so I returned to an old habit of taking a prayer walk. As I walked, I repeated a mantra to myself that I have used many times in the past: “Jesus, lead me.” Twenty minutes seems to be the sweet spot. After twenty minutes, my body has moved enough and my mind has cleared enough that my interior, spiritual life begins to emerge – furtively - like a deer onto a quiet meadow.

Sometimes, after the twenty-minute preamble, a kind of clarity materializes. Call it a realization, call it the voice of the Spirit, call it what you will, while walking this day I heard the words “My ego is clawing at me to stay relevant.” While retirement keeps trying to coax me toward a deeper identity, our culture keeps telling me that my need to be busy, and be seen being busy, is the only life worth having. Moving from one identity to the other is like being a trapeze artist who must let go of one swing, reach out into open space, and trust that the second swing will be there.

In my case, letting go of the first swing requires disentangling myself from a culture that fetishizes busyness, and allowing myself the gift of time and space.

In his book Prisms: Reflections on This Journey We Call Life, James Hollis, a Jungian analyst, writes: Whenever our ego frame collapses, we’re in the presence of…the larger, radical Other. When we are obliged to radically alter our sense of self and world, encounter limitations and open to the reframing of understanding [it] is a religious encounter. God didn’t just love us into existence and leave it at that; each of us is invited to be a part of the process of God’s continuing creative action. As Thomas Merton said, "Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny." To know this truth, Merton wrote, we are to "pray for our own discovery."

In the hero’s journey, the third act is when the hero returns home, changed by the adventures of life. In a book or film, it’s the time when the plot resolves. As Merton explained, our third act is not simply to be but, with God’s help, to continue forming a life, an identity, a destiny. Abraham and Sarah, in their old age, were invited to set out for a new land and conceive a child long after this was biologically impossible for them. As I pray for my own discovery, I wonder what “Isaac” I am being called to birth in these retirement years.

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