Relationships confound our attempts to optimize for efficiency
Ours is a busy culture. The twenty-four hours never seem to be enough. We scramble to complete our tasks by the end of the day, our phones blinking, our minds racing as we longingly gaze at the plush comfort of our waiting pillows. But sometimes, even as we dream about sleep, we simultaneously spurn it. We're exhausted, but we take it as a badge of honour. We don't want to have time.
Busyness is a marker of social status in our world, and we all want to be respected. How are things? Busy. We say it with relish, but of course, we cover that up with a shrug of our shoulders. It's not acceptable to declare our importance, but we can subtly suggest it. And so, by cramming our schedules with pressing tasks, we feel we are necessary, that we are squeezing every drop out of life.
What is living, though, without people to love?
The busy mindset has many shortcomings, but its most dangerous is the threat it poses to our relationships. We know this intuitively and can recall stories of marriages shipwrecked on one spouse's unyielding dedication to work. Devotion to busyness chokes the life out of relationships. It is a repeated declaration that the career trumps the person, and so love atrophies. And yet, most of these spouses were not ignorant of the dangers. They reassured themselves and their spouses, repeatedly, that they knew the risk. As the deadlines pile up, they were the ones who dismissed their spouses' concerns with a well-worn, "I know, I know."
Love takes time. In no season have I seen the fruit of this truth more than the lull produced by a pandemic. Less preoccupied with the next task to complete, I find myself more frequently building pillow forts with my kids and chatting with my wife about our deepest hopes and fears. And the time has forged new bonds of intimacy. Whether with our spouses, children, family, or friends, love requires patience and practice. It requires our full presence.
This means relationships are not efficient. They cannot be reduced to productivity metrics. We do not calculate with utilitarian precision how many hours and dollars will equal a fulfilling friendship. We would surely spurn such a friend. A person who thus positions himself misses the point of friendship entirely. His attention is misplaced; he goes sailing to wear boat shoes, not to taste the cool, salt breeze.
Our attachments to people grant us something intricate and meaningful. We sit together in moments of silence, and yet the quiet conveys a depth utterly foreign to the world of bottom lines. And yes, relationships may not be smooth. A family crisis comes at an inopportune time. Our carefully planned schedules are intruded upon by this or that need and diverted. But where would we be otherwise? Alone. Isolated. Love and friendship are slow, steady games. Good things take time. Measured by efficiency, instant noodles are far superior to Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, ready in minutes instead of hours. But beef stock and slow, simmered meat are incomparable.
Many of us know these things, but we still are not immune to busyness. If we are not the flippant spouse who brushes away our loved ones' concerns, perhaps we say "just a little longer." We tell ourselves that we will look after these relationships, that we will take the time once that one goal is met, that dangling carrot snatched. Yet when we take hold of the prize and turn to show our friends and family, we might find that nobody is there. And they are not there, not because they have left us, but because we have gone so far along our own path that we find ourselves isolated, adrift from the life we might've shared.
Time is precious, and so it should go to precious ends. Our relationships form us and suffuse our lives with delight that's difficult to quantify. This is not to deny the intrinsic pleasures of good work and other such pursuits, but we must not be negligent. Worse yet, we must not convince ourselves we have dealt with the problem by noting its existence or telling ourselves we will change in the future. To take relationships seriously is to be proactive in them. Loving well requires us to tame the demands of a merely economic life and resist the worst passions of personal ambition. Doing so takes time, but I am certain we will not regret it.