Modern life very often feels like a puzzle, and this month I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about where and how to fit in more time for connection. I’ve resolved to make 2019 my year to reconnect—to prioritize relationship and community in a time of rampant loneliness and disconnection—and I’ve started by trying to devote time each day to reaching out and engaging with other people. But as a full-time working mother, it often feels like I arrive at the end of my day like a sprinter crossing the finish line. If you read my post on habit-izing connection, you’ll remember that I had to take my daily goal for time spent reaching out down from one hour to just fifteen minutes. And if by chance you’ve been the recipient of a late night “How’s it going? Just thinking of you and hoping you’re well!” text or email from me, you’ve been witness to just how hard even this has turned out to be.
Carl Honore, a journalist who wrote a book called In Praise of Slowness, calls this phenomenon being “marinated in the culture of speed.” He has studied the West’s obsession with busyness and productivity, and has uncovered its many costs. We live in “a world stuck in fast-forward,” he observes, “every moment of the day feels like a race against the clock.” This is not only an unpleasant way to live, but also an unhealthy one, he argues. It’s a cultural phenomenon unique to the Western world, and one that Honore feels is at the root of our society’s epic–and growing–levels of unhappiness.
“Sometimes it takes a wakeup call to alert us to the fact that we’re hurrying through our lives instead of actually living them,” Honore says. And I know what he means. My first “wakeup call” came in the form of a major physical and emotional burnout after years of juggling entrepreneurship, motherhood, and a globe-trotting expat lifestyle. All of a sudden it became painfully clear to me that the time I saved rushing past self-care for so many years was ultimately lost as I collapsed in a heap of exhaustion. That’s how I became a loyal practitioner of radical behaviors like getting at least seven hours of sleep per night and not opening my inbox over the weekend. Those changes have made a big difference in moderating my stress levels, but they haven’t done much to curb my general addiction to busyness—a fact of which I was recently reminded.
Not long ago I was invited to the baptism of a woman in my church congregation named Cassandra. I teach her five-year old son’s Sunday school class every week, but we’d never really connected beyond the exchange of a few pleasantries. But one day after church, as we were both hurrying our kids to the car, Cassandra’s husband stopped my husband and personally invited us to attend her baptism. I was surprised. First because I hadn’t even realized that Cassandra wasn’t a member of our church already, and second because a baptism is a fairly intimate occasion. It was clear that we didn’t really know each other all that well.
It’s rare in our culture that adults engage in a rite of passage like this—a ritual that marks a move from one kind of life to another, a covenant made with God and others, and a commitment made to become part of a new community. It’s a momentous occasion, and one to be celebrated. I was touched that they’d think to invite us personally, and my husband and I agreed that we should—and would—attend.
The following Friday night, the day before the baptism, I ran into Cassandra’s husband, and thanked him for inviting us. And then, almost as a reflex, I added, “We’re really going to try to be there, but we have a lot going on tomorrow. I hope we can make it—but we’ll have to see how the morning goes.” He smiled politely and said he understood and that he hoped he’d see us there. It wasn’t until I walked away that I fully realized what I had said. And I was horrified.
I knew that I had every intention of attending. Sure, I’d be racing home from my weekly mad dash of grocery shopping and errand-running to throw on a dress and get to the church by 11:00, but why did I have to emphasize that fact? Why impress upon him how busy I was, and what an effort it would be for me to attend what would be a life-changing event for his family?
In reflecting on this experience and several others like it, I have come to believe that the modern cultural norm of busyness is crowding out connection. But why is it so attractive–not only to engage in, but to advertise? A recent suite of studies has shown that in modern American culture busyness has come to be not just a cultural norm but also a status symbol. “How are you?” an acquaintance might ask in passing. “Busy!” we say with a sigh. And we are busy—busier than almost any generation in history—but we are also quick to advertise this fact as a signal of our importance, a marker of our upward mobility, and a merit badge earned for our great and productive daily contributions to society.
However, this humble-brag hurrying is a subtle but substantial barrier to meaningful connection. The minute we flag our busyness in a social interaction, we send a signal to the person we’re talking with that we don’t have much time to be with them—that we have important things to do and places to be, and that we’d better make it quick. This subtle cue cuts off conversation, isolates us from others, and insulates us from connection—which, ironically, is the one thing we really want. Connection is the elusive prize we’re actually reaching for when we subtly—even unconsciously—tout our own importance by mentioning our endless to-do lists and our “crazy” lives. We want others to like us, to think we’re important, to think we’re valuable. But I have come to believe that this cultural tic and the value system it represents may actually be a powerful driver of our loneliness.
While we might enjoy the instant gratification of a life lived at full throttle, and may revel in the immediate self-importance of knowing just how in-demand we are, at the end of the (very busy!) day, we have checked all the boxes on the to-do list but the most important one. We’ve distanced ourselves from others, and we find ourselves alone. Connecting these dots has been part of my second wake-up call: my realization that for all the thrill of the rush, and all the cache of an over-active lifestyle, the cost to be paid is dear indeed.
But I believe there’s hope as we strive to take a more mindful approach to our lives and our relationships. “By slowing down at the right moments people find that they do everything better,” Carl Honore reports. They’re happier, more productive, and enjoy more, deeper, and more supportive relationships. If I want to reconnect, I’m realizing that I will have to stage a cultural revolt by simply slowing down and prioritizing relating over rushing. And though that decision might feel like a sacrifice of the status I think I want, the hope is that it will actually be a route to the relationships I know I need.