Remember downtime? It was that thing we did before cellphones. We’d be waiting for a doctor’s appointment or for a bus, and we’d just sit there, idle.
I was waiting for a table at a restaurant the other night, and right in front of me was a family of four—mom, dad, son and grandma. Mom, Dad and son all had their cellphones out, doing whatever urgent tasks people do on their cellphones to take advantage of those few precious moments before their table for four is called, but grandma was just sitting there—watching, thinking, possibly just letting her mind wander.
One might be tempted to think that’s just what old people do. But according to an article from 2013 in Scientific American, titled “Why your brain needs more downtime,” grandma was actually engaging in an activity that healthy people do.
“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation,” the article states, “encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. …
“Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.”
The article quotes another essay on a similar topic, one published by the New York Times the year before titled “The Busy Trap.” Essayist Tim Kreider defends habits of doing nothing, suggesting that being idle is not “an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body.”
“The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole,” he added.
But isn’t idleness the devil’s playground? Yes, it can be, when it becomes one’s primary mode of being. But I think the authors quoted above aren’t advocating so much a life of idleness, as they are suggesting that lives that are spent constantly “doing” something are out of balance.
In favor of being “busy” doing stuff all the time, we have lost touch with the need to take a break, disconnect, and just rest. And all of that unbridled activity hurts more than just our mental processes, it hurts our relationships. If we are always busy, when do we have for others?
Let’s go back to the example of the family waiting for a table. Instead of taking advantage of valuable time together to connect and share, they were ignoring each other. Grandma was the only one showing any availability for engaging in conversation, but she was alone.
Taking this one step further: If we are too busy to talk to the people right in front of us, how do we expect to have any time to talk to Our Father in Heaven?
How often do we say that we would love to pray more, or go to daily Mass, but we are just too busy? We opt for “busyness” over moments of prayer—the perennial problem of choosing to be Martha over Mary.
Maybe this Lent we decide to break the cycle. Maybe we opt to “not do” over “do.”
One practical suggestion would be to take a page out of grandma’s playbook and put our cellphones away for a little bit each day, and just sit and look. Maybe we do this in the chapel and spend some time just sitting with God. Go ahead, your Facebook friends will wait.