The Thief of Intimacy, Busyness

Thursday, November 13, 2014 - 5:55 am

The Thief of Intimacy, Busyness

I was sitting in our living room a few days ago, with my laptop on my lap, doing what I always do “after work” — answering emails that don’t stop at 5, catching up on business.

My little girl, a real love of my life, came into the room in that beautiful way she does. She doesn’t so much walk as she skips, she glides, she dances. She walks on her tippy toes, because she is, as she says, a “for real life” princess. As she came dancing into the room, she started to say in her own sing-songy way, “Baba, would you like to…”

At that very moment she saw me, laptop in lap, locked into my jihad against email. The smallest jihad. The struggle I always lose.

She cut herself off. Her dancing came to a halt. Her sing-songy voice changed to something else, something not even resembling disappointment. It was resignation, more like surrender to the rhythm of her Baba’s life, knowing the scene she had seen countless times before.

Without waiting for my response, she cut herself off mid-sentence, pivoted on her beautiful feet, and walked out. I heard her say, with her back turned to me, “Oh, you’re busy.”

As she walked out, I stared at this blasted laptop screen. Silver frame. Plastic, shiny screen. Cursor that blinks like a heartbeat. But it is not alive, this laptop. There is no heartbeat here, as there is in that delicate angel of mine.

I ran after my little love and held her in my arms. I wanted to apologize not just for being busy in that moment, but for all the hundreds of other times she must have come into the room, dancing and prancing, singing and wishing to take me with her on her imaginary flights of fancy to beautiful worlds where little girls and their babas walk through meadows populated only by butterflies, unicorns, friends, tea parties, sunshine, and hugs. It’s a beautiful pink and purple world that my daughter lives in. Far too often, she’s been there alone.

All too often, I’m home, but I am not fully there with her, because I am tending to other business.

I am a good baba, I know I am. I know it every time her beautiful face lights up when she sees me. I work hard. I try to be a good colleague, a good son, a good friend, a good partner, a good sibling. It’s not about how much I love her (“right up to the moon and back”). It’s about the time that she has my undivided attention. It’s about the quality of time in which I am wholeheartedly present. She, my love, is always present.

And when I give in to this busyness, I am missing out. People talk about #FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. I don’t fear it; I know it. I am missing out. I’m missing out by being so busy.

(Lauren Randolph / © All rights reserved.)

We live in a culture that celebrates activity. We collapse our sense of who we are into what we do for a living. The public performance of busyness is how we demonstrate to one another that we are important. The more people see us as tired, exhausted, over-stretched, the more they think we must be somehow… indispensable. That we matter.

I know I matter each time I look into the eyes of she who matters most to me. I don’t gain anything by stepping into the swamp of busyness. No one emerges from this busyness whole.

We have become a thing-centered society: the accumulation of stuff is one of our favorite priorities. We define our worth through the number of tasks we fulfill. How do we become a person-centered society again?

Tasks are finite. They come at us with an endless barrage. We check them off, and more follow.

So what’s the price we pay for being busy? It’s not that being busy makes us more stressed, or less efficient, or less pleasant. It’s that we miss out. We miss out on an extraordinary amount of time, of being present, of living in intimacy with the people we love the most. The price we pay is… intimacy.

Intimacy is what we all crave. We all want to be loved. We want to give love and receive love. We all crave for others to be with us. And that love is often the slow, patient kind. It doesn’t show up on any list of tasks that have been crossed off. There are no daily memos that recognize it, no annual reports of it. It shows up in the smile of my daughter when she sees me, in the way she puts her head on my shoulder, in how long she lingers before saying goodbye.

Somewhere we read love is patient, love is kind. Real love is also often undocumented, but lived.

To love someone, truly love someone, we have to be there. We have to be there wholeheartedly. Not one eye on the laptop, one eye on our child. Not one eye on our partner, one eye on the iPhone. To love someone wholly, we have to be wholeheartedly present ourselves. Being “busy” robs us of that intimacy.

There is a whole eternity present inside each of these moments, these breaths, in which we are truly present. And there is a thief that robs the grace inside these moments. That thief is scatteredness, busyness.

The great Persian mystic Attar says:

Every breath of your life
is itself a jewel.

Rumi develops the metaphor even more:

A jewel has dropped in your heart’s deep core,
Which neither seas nor heaven knew before,

….

Its form is perfect, but it lacks a soul ––
Go, seek out that rare jewel –– that’s your goal!

Each one of these breaths is a jewel. Inside these jewels there is the promise of intimacy. Seek it. Don’t lose it to the thief of busyness.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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