The Addictions of Busyness & the Case for Urgency

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
February 24, 2014
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Everyone is Busy

Ever felt too busy to breathe? I can recall a time when I was working on three different graduate degrees at once while building the early stages of an emerging non-profit, and working various jobs amidst other passions and duties. Sleep rarely made the agenda. An important case has been made against perpetually “being busy:”

Being busy used to make me feel important. It made me feel like the world needed me, like somehow I was more valuable or valid when busy. Perhaps that’s why I wore it like a badge and quickly resorted to it when people asked how life was. Yet in all reality, busyness was just another addiction I clung to so I could avoid things that made me uncomfortable.

It’s true: life is short and too many of us fill every moment of it with tasks and work. With the grind of constant demands and responsibilities it becomes all too easy to hide behind the requirements of work, family, finances, health, and society. Instead of succumbing to our preoccupations, we should try prioritizing our lives in such a way as to have slower times of reflection and recharging.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was once looking out his window, watching people hurrying across the town square. He leaned out and inquired of one man in a rush, “Why are you running?” The man replied, “I’m running to work to make a living.” The rabbi replied, “Are you so sure that your livelihood is running away from you and you have to rush to catch it up? Perhaps it’s running towards you, and all you have to do is stand still and let it catch up with you.” Oftentimes, we may be chasing what is waiting for us right before our eyes if we just paused.

However, I do think there is a case to make for urgency. Life is short and if we truly do value it then we should feel a sense of urgency to live it as fully as we can; urgency to achieve, to have impact, and to give back.

The Mesillat Yesharim, a work of Mussar promoting ethical and spiritual development, adamantly promoted the value of zrizut (alacrity). When we know what we must do – we are on mission – we must be steadfastly committed to achieving our goal. If we are living with purpose and meaning, we should be driven to really impact the world with our full zest. This, of course, does not mean that we should always be busy, only that we should feel a strong sense of urgency in our lives that can get so strong that we are temporarily lost in it because of our commitment to life and our purpose.

Urgency is not about busyness or franticness but about rejecting complacency. One should strive to moderate one’s sense of passionate internal drive into a life of balance, but sometimes that balance should go out of equilibrium.

We should feel overburdened with responsibility. We are charged not only to leverage our talents to do good acts in the world but to stand up against evils in our midst even when we do not have the power or ability to change them. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel wrote: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” We must, in some fashion, be present for all of the most crucial issues of our time.

There are many global problems today (like climate control) that are clearly headed toward disaster. Sometimes, we can indeed predict how terribly things will end up if we don’t intervene.

We can feel settled in our times of security and yet also embrace the unsettling historical reality that peace and security can be eliminated in just one moment. If life was just about our own happiness then it would not be difficult for us to achieve balance and we might be enjoying every moment of our lives, with the greatest of ease. But if life is also about fulfilling our duties and responsibilities to our families, communities, to help others, and to support societal progress then we must often sacrifice our calm and comfort and embrace the urgency of our mission. We must strike a balance between feeling settled (stable) and feeling unsettled (agitated by injustice and insufficiency). We must develop spiritual practices that both charge us and re-center us to ensure we can achieve spiritual focus and prevent our moral commitments from dragging us into an abyss of addiction to busyness.

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Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, and the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Insitute. Rav Shmuly completed his Masters at Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, a Masters at Harvard in Moral Psychology and a Doctorate at Columbia in Epistemology and Moral Development. Rav Shmuly is the author of Jewish Ethics and Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century and his second book was Epistemic Development in Talmud Study.

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