When we’re not busy

September 26, 2012 | Viewpoints | Number 19
Melissa Miller |

We often greet each other with a question like, “Keeping busy?” For many of us the answer is yes, and we may add a summary of our current tasks or activities to the one who greeted us. Or we may mentally review the kinds of things that are keeping us busy. As we do so, we could feel stimulated by these pursuits and well-engaged with life. Or possibly we feel overloaded and stressed. Whether we feel fulfilled or frustrated with busy-ness, we likely think of ourselves as being “normal” when we are busy. There’s an assumption that most people are fully occupied with things to do, people to visit, and tasks to complete. And if we’re not busy, then something is wrong.

In fact, all of us aren’t busy. Or all of us aren’t busy all the time. Some of us struggle with the opposite dynamic. Instead of the constant hum of compelling activity, we endure long, too-quiet hours. Rather than a “full dance card” of social engagement, we are lonely and yearning for meaningful connection.

A number of circumstances could come into play. In some cases, physical or mental illness has sidelined us from the busy railroad track of life. For some people, unemployment or underemployment makes for long days and longer nights; without a job to occupy us, we can feel unmoored and lacking in self-worth. For others, a move to a new community disrupts our social network and the activities that go along with it. Changes in family circumstances are another factor, as when children grow into adulthood and leave home, or when a spouse dies.

Some of the elderly are less busy than they would like to be, perhaps unable to keep up with events as they did in the past, or perhaps because their social circles have grown smaller. And young adults may find themselves to be under-engaged with life, feeling adrift and purposeless.

How do we live at such times? How do we manage our disquietude and discomfort? How do we live fully when life feels more empty than full?

First of all, we do well to remember that emptiness is part of the spiritual landscape. Biblical stories abound of people meeting God in the empty places of the desert and the wilderness. While we may feel discontented or even fearful of the emptiness, we can trust that God is fully with us at such times. And certainly we learn different things about ourselves and about God when we are quiet, still and even bored or lonely than we do when life is bursting with activity.

We also can turn to the two pillars of love and work on which to fill the bare spaces of our lives. Love that offers us satisfying bonds of connection. And work that provides meaningful purpose and activity, whether that be paid or voluntary. If we find ourselves to be “not busy” and distressed, perhaps we can search out possibilities for love and for work. Is there a family member or neighbour who might welcome some contact? Could we fill our long hours with prayer for particular people or places? Is there a church or community need where we can volunteer, using our gifts to share God’s love? Are there creative possibilities to pursue—a memoir to write, a woodworking project, painting or song to bring forth?

Finally, let’s be gentle with ourselves, not falling prey to the illusion that busy-ness means fulfillment, contentment or healthy balance.

Melissa Miller (familyties@mts.net) lives in Winnipeg where she works as a pastor and counsellor. Her family ties include that of daughter, sister, wife, mother and friend.

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