The Sin of Multi-tasking
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 4, 2005
Martha is rushing around, taking care of everything. She’s seeing to the needs of her guests. She’s in the kitchen, preparing dinner. She’s washing the dishes. She may even be trying to catch just a snippet of some of the things her important guest is saying. Who knows what else might be going on? Maybe she’s trying to feed the kids as well, or the cats? She is, Luke tells us, “distracted by her many tasks.” Finally, she has had enough. She goes in, and tells Jesus: “Rabbi, don’t you see what’s going on here? Tell Mary to come in and give me a hand. I need her help in the kitchen.”
Jesus, it is said, replies: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” “Stop doing all you’re doing, Martha” he says, “and come and sit down and listen, and share with us—right now, in this moment, in this time we have here together.”
“Stop multi-tasking, Martha!” is what Jesus is, in fact, telling her. Boy, was he ahead of his time!
In recent years, the concept of “multi-tasking”—of doing multiple things at the same time—has become, perhaps, the dominant characteristic of our culture. Even though the very word wasn’t even in dictionaries published just six or seven years ago (I checked), the term—and even more frighteningly, the behavior-- is now everywhere, and people “multi-task” wherever they are, in all sorts of places: at work; at home; in school; even (maybe especially) while driving. We don’t just do the one job we have before us. We do two—or three-- or even more things at one time—and we wear our multi-tasking skills as a badge of honor. In today’s fast-paced world, anyone who wants to be considered a bright, energetic, competent person has to be able to multi-task, right? Even the want ads say it: “Must have good verbal and written communications skills, and must be able to multi-task.” I mean, how else are we ever going to have enough time to do everything we have to do in this hurry up world of ours?
One day, the story goes, God is Upstairs at that Great Big University in the Sky reviewing applications for admission. And as He’s reading all these applications he has before him, a common theme comes through: “I would have done [so and so],” he reads, “but I didn’t have enough time.” “Couldn’t finish [this or that] because I needed more time.” “I would have done more [or, ‘I would have done better, or whatever’], but there weren’t enough hours in the day…” Over and over, God reads: “I would have been a better person, but I didn’t have enough time…” “Well,” God finally says, “that’s something I’ll do different next time!”
But, of course, the fact of the matter is that the amount of time we have is a given. We have no less time than our most ancient forbears did. There has never been more—or less—time than there is today, than there is right now. Why, all of a sudden, this need to multi-task; this need to spread ourselves too thinly over the whole mass, and hope for the best?
Perhaps our fault is not in our stars—not in the cosmic makeup of existence—but in ourselves (more particularly, in our cultural selves, our social selves, and even our economic selves) that we are running roughshod over the “better part” of life in this way.
Much has changed in modern life over the past hundred years, the American Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, and we have “drifted away from intimacy with the natural world and a lifetime connectedness with the community in which we were born.” Over the past generation, this rootlessness has become even more pronounced, especially with the advent of the digital revolution. Now, we have home computers and lap tops. We’ve got fax machines and beepers and pagers. Everyone, it seems, has a cell phones (and some of them have cameras built in, and can play all sorts of games, and can send, I’m told, something called “text messages”. People have palm pilots and a Blackberry isn’t only a fruit any more. There’s wifi connectivity in coffee shops and shopping malls and on trains and buses. There’s the internet, of course, the world wide web, and cable television and tivo (I think it’s called), offering hundreds and hundreds of channels. Then, there’s digital radio, and—of course—we all worship at the shrine of the great god of EMAIL! We’ve got email—lots and lots of email!
There seems to be a new innovation every day—some new gadget to make our lives more efficient and more productive; some new way to help us communicate faster and faster and faster. And it is at our own peril, we are told, that we do not utilize all of these new innovations; if we do not take advantage of everything that’s offered us, we risk rendered hopelessly old fashioned and out of touch and redundant.
As a result, Zinn says, “Our entire society suffers from attention deficit disorder, and it is getting worse by the day…. We are literally being driven to distraction by our delicious opportunities and choices… It has given rise to a dance of inattention and instability of mind.”
We have become addicts of multi-tasking, even at those precious times when we don’t need to be. Even at those times when we don’t have to perform multiple tasks, we’re now reluctant to slow down and abandon ourselves to the moment at hand. Add another psychological disease—“hurry sickness”—to our diagnosis. “Hurry sickness” is the dis-ease that arises in our psyches (and often soon thereafter, in our bodies) when we give ourselves over completely to this fast-paced culture and just can’t stop rushing—hurrying—faster, faster—even when we don’t need to. As one therapist puts it:
“Hurry sickness is more than just feeling rushed and wanting to get relief from our pressure-cooker lives. Just as Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate inappropriately, we have learned to hurry inappropriately. Our sense of urgency is set off not by a real need to act quickly, but through learned cues. Our ‘bells’ have become the watch, the alarm clock, the morning coffee, and the hundreds of self-inflicted expectations [for speed] we have built into our daily routine. The subliminal message [we receive is that] time is running out; life is winding down; please hurry.”
Now, the fact of the matter is that time is running out, for all of us; and life is precious, and fragile; and that our own end days, for each of us, in this life at least, are approaching “like a thief in the night”. So we need to savor and experience and live as much as we can, while we are here. We want to live before we die, as Thoreau said; we don’t want to die before we wake.
Our technology advances at an absolutely amazing rate of speed. But not so our physical evolution. We might have myriad more options than our ancient (or even immediate) predecessors in this human race of ours did. But our physical makeup is essentially the same as theirs; we are not really wired so differently neurologically (or psychologically or certainly not spiritually). We are certainly not wired for such overwhelming frenzy.
I’m sure that our ancestors did their share of multi-tasking, too. Any of you who cooked Thanksgiving dinner last week know that there are times when you can’t simply concentrate on the one task you have at hand. You have to peal the potatoes; and check the turkey in the oven; and stir the gravy; and seed the squash—all right now, if dinner is going to be served by one o’clock.
But there is a great big difference between taking care of business in an efficient and organized manner—and working hard and playing hard—and falling into bed at night physically exhausted from a day well spent—and having to answer simultaneously dozens of emails, and drive the kids to soccer practice, and listen to the news, and eat lunch, and answer the phone, and the cell phone, and the beeper, and process—right now—an endless stream of information coming at you from the four corners of the globe. This isn’t efficiency. This is crazy.
We human ones were not meant to function this way—and multi-tasking (when carried to the extreme it is being carried in our culture) is robbery: It does not give us more time, but less. It does not enhance us or advance us as modern men and women, but robs us of our humanity. It creates an illusion of more—more—more; but actually delivers less—less—less. Rather than experiencing the wonders of life (and life is chocked full of more wonders than we can even imagine), it lets us sample only the tiniest, superficial morsels of one fleeting experience after another. It claims it is liberating us to the wonders of a new technological age. But it is actually caging us in on the “jittery surface of things” (as Scott Alexander calls it); barring the gates to the deeper treasures of our spirits that lie down below. It claims it is expanding our minds, but it is actually trapping us in what Buddhists call a “monkey mind”. A “monkey mind” is one that cannot concentrate, that can not pay attention, whose thoughts rush about willy-nilly, much the way a money in the jungle jumps about from one tree to the next. When you have a monkey mind, you can’t concentrate on any one thought, but are constantly jumping from thought to thought to thought.
I am all in favor of the human power to think. I like to think. Thinking is fine, and can be put to many wonderful uses. But the monkey mind—the hyperactive mind—produces nothing that abides. Human reason is fine; but the brain is only one of the body’s organs. More important than thinking about something is experiencing it. Behold a beautiful sunset. Behold it—be there, and hold it in your entire being. Don’t look at it and say, “Oh, what a beautiful sunset. That reminds me of the sunset I saw in France last year. I think that sunset was even redder. Maybe not redder; maybe more orange. It was warmer then than it is today. The south of France is warmer than here. France is a beautiful country. But they have their problems too. Look at those riots they had. Immigration is a complicated problem. What are we going to do about immigration? And then, there’s the whole question of Islam…”
When we don’t pay attention with our whole beings, and move everything to our heads, we start with a beautiful sunset (one of life’s choicest blessings) and we end up rioting in the streets of Paris, and living in fear of Islamic jihad!
"I think, therefore I am", Descartes said.
But, as Thich Nhat Hahn sees it, too often it has become “I think, therefore, I don’t have to be present.”
We sit down to enjoy a nice lunch of bread and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes. But we read the newspaper at the same time. So, along with our sandwich we also take in the riots in Paris—and the war in Iraq—and the growing budget deficit—and all the other daily pains of the world. Soon, we’ve forgotten the luscious tomatoes and the nutty cheese and the wonderfully grainy bread (all of these sublime blessings of life!), and we remember only the misery of the world. It is as though we have not eaten at all… So, we’re still hungry, physically perhaps, and certainly emotionally and spiritually.
At the same time, deep inside, a rage is growing. Deep inside, we feel as though more of our time has been robbed from us, more of our precious moments stolen. And the clock keeps tick, tick, ticking away for all of us…
And such is the way it will be, unless we put the multi-tasking monster in its place, and become guerilla fighters for mindfulness.
As Scott Alexander has written:
It is not an either/or choice between living life with mindfulness and meeting all the responsibilities piled before us. Only with mindfulness-- only through living genuinely, honestly, from the fullness of our being, living each moment as fully as we can, as it comes—can we ever hope to face all that we are called upon to do.
A monk was once asked how he could possibly meditate for an hour each day and yet get as much done as he did. He replied that it wasn’t easy, certainly. “When I get up and know that I have an especially busy day ahead of me, with a real lots to do, I meditate for two hours first instead.”
Sometimes, in order to face all that is demanded of us, we have to first slow down. Slow down, and feel again the rhythm of life and the pulse of nature which it is so easy to get divorced from in our hectic world; slow down, so that we can contemplate the deeper meanings of our lives, and remember why it is that we are here, and discern again the “better part” of life; slow down, and, as Camus said, once again “tap that part of our nature, which we recapture in contemplating the beauties of nature and of human faces.”
“The great surprises in life are hidden in the present moment.” That is where the great sacredness of life dwells as well. When one farms, Wendell Berry reminds us, one does not farm quickly; one does not farm at the speed of light; one learns to farm at the “speed of corn”.
Life has a speed of its own, and increasing the speed of life merely fashions a false veneer of “our time” over the deeper reality of “God’s time”.
As Judy Meyer has written:
Let us, in our own time, finally learn this lesson: There is so much more to life than increasing its speed. We are worried and distracted by many things in our times. But there is only one thing that is most important—and that is the care of our spirits.
May we lay our claim to that “better part”. May we learn, slowly but surely, to disengage from the distractions and delusions of modern life, and engage, moment by moment, the wonder and surprise which is our birthright as sons and daughters of the divine.