Our Modern Malady of Confusing Productivity with Purposefulness and the Urgent with the Important


The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin of relaxation to his day. He is only interested to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk.
Henry David Thoreau

I am indebted to Maria Popova and an article she wrote on her website about the Journals of Henry David Thoreau for the title of this piece. But perhaps the title does not go far enough, because it seems that what we are confusing with purposefulness is not even productivity; it is busyness. To be busy beyond our capabilities is the “red badge of courage’ for our times. The universal answer to the question “How are you?’” now seems to be “I am busy—super busy. Too busy.” We answer with a wry grin. But there is just a tiny point of pride in our answer. It’s as if by announcing our busyness, we are justifying our place in the universe. “I’m unbelievably busy so therefore I must be important!” “Right?”

Thoreau, Thomas Merton, Suzuki Roshi and others would beg to differ. Thoreau says, “Those who work much do not work hard.” Thoreau is still derided today by certain misguided types as being lazy because he spent two years in a tiny cabin that he built on Walden Pond. He spent two years attending to his inner life by providing himself the time and space to mindfully attend to the Nature around him and discover what it could teach him about purposefulness. He wrote, I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

The epidemic of busyness is robbing us of meaning and purpose. It leaves little time for relationship. Relationships need to be cultivated and cared for or they wither like an untended garden. The meaning of life is built on right relationship with the mystery that we call God, ourselves, each other, and nature. The great twentieth century wisdom teacher, Thomas Merton warned that busyness can be a form of laziness and prayed to be set free from “the laziness that goes about disguised as activity when activity is not required of me.” It is much easier to distract ourselves with reading and writing emails for instance, than to sit for ten minutes in contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer or meditation actually creates more space in our lives, yet the most often stated reason for not meditating is, “I’m too busy.” Spending ten minutes in contemplative silence will strengthen your relationship with God and Self, thus enabling you to be more present to other people. Stepping into silence allows us to discern what really is essential and provides an escape from what Merton called “the intolerable arrogance of the business world.”

When I find myself caught up in the vortex of busyness I try to remember Shunryu Suzuki’s advice. When he was old and sick with cancer he was helping students clear rocks out of a garden. The students soon became exhausted while Suzuki Roshi kept working. When asked how he kept on without a break, he replied, “I rest in every moment.” Ironically, Thoreau, Merton, and Suzuki were among the most accomplished and productive men of their times because they were not afraid to stop.