Busyness as a “law-based barometer of self-worth”

January 28, 2016

lgcoverI’m working my way slowly through Mockingbird Ministries’ recent book Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints). One recurring theme is the way in which humanity is enslaved to the Law, which often manifests itself as enslavement to our self-created “little-l” laws. In the following section, the authors talk about our attempts to justify ourselves by being “busy” all the time.

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are,” essayist Tim Kreider famously observed, pinpointing one of the most inescapable pathologies of modern life. When asked how we are doing, we used to say, ‘fine’ or ‘well.’ Today the default response is ‘busy.’ Which is an honest answer. Smartphones and similar devices have largely chased away the uncomfortable idleness that once characterized society, quickening the pace of life to an almost absurd degree. People are busy. We are busy. Very busy.

But ‘busyness’ is more than a description of how we’re doing; it is one of our culture’s predominant indicators of worth and value, a measure of identity and therefore personal righteousness. The more frantic the activity, the better. Kreider spelled this out when he theorized that, “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

What does it say about you if you’re not busy? Nothing good, so get back on the horn. The implication is that if we’re not over-occupied, we are inferior to those who are. As with all law-based barometers of self-worth (beauty, wealth, influence, youth, etc.), there is no ‘enough.’ Any justification we may attain through exertion is short-lived to say the least.[1]

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 60-1.

One Response to “Busyness as a “law-based barometer of self-worth””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Somewhat in agreement, though I was confused by this reference: “law-based barometers of self-worth (beauty, wealth, influence, youth, etc.).” I don’t think the examples are “law-based,” just social or “feel good about yourself” barometers, having nothing to do with actual “merit.” “Busyness,” by contrast, at least does have SOMETHING to do with merit, being extolled somewhat in Proverbs under the rubric of “hard work.” I think the distinction should rather primarily be, busy as to what? There are plenty of things we stay busy with that have little or nothing to do with “kingdom work.” So, it is not primarily busyness qua busyness that is the problem, but, toward what end? However, I do agree that busyness can itself sometimes become a goal, which would be misplaced.


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