The Thief of Intimacy, Busyness

Thursday, November 13, 2014 - 5:55am
Photo by Amanda Tipton

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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Omid Safi

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 Times, Newsweek, Washington 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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Thank you for the additional insights. I believe the natural world offers as an antidote to the thing-driven, technology-supported world in which we spend most of our time. Take your child, your partner, your loved ones into nature, into beauty, and you will find connections with one another and all that is more than our individual existence.


I feel the words thief and busyness echo Krista's interview of John O Donahue in which he says time is thieved from us by our busy lives:

"MR. O'DONOHUE: Totally, and I'd say seven out of every 10 people who turn up in a doctor's surgery are suffering from something stress-related. Now, there are big psychological tomes written on stress. But for me, philosophically, stress is a perverted relationship to time. So that rather than being a subject of your own time, you have become its target and victim, and time has become routine. So at the end of the day, you probably haven't had a true moment for yourself. And you know, to relax in and to just be. Because, you know, the way in this country — there's all the different zones. I think there are these zones within us as well. There's surface time, which is really a rapid-fire Ferrari time.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and over-structured.

MR. O'DONOHUE: Yeah, over-structured, like, and stolen from you, thieved all the time. And then if you sit down, like, Dan Siegel, my friend, does this lovely meditation, you know: You imagine the surface of the ocean is all restless and then you slip down deep below the surface where it's still and where things move slower. And what I love in this regard is my old friend Meister Eckhart, 14th-century mystic."

This is a beautiful article and so timely and important. Thank you for this jewel.

I am 81 years young. Yes, I have an Ipad , yes, I have a laptop, these are all wonderful gadjects that can make life easier......but the essance of life is human contact. To have a conversation with someone and look into their eyes, to hear the expression in their voice, to see the body language....this is what is important. As you mention the Persian saying " Every breath of life is a jewel " so breath deep, look people in the eye , show them your love.

dear Patricia, thank you for sharing such beautiful fruit of your life's wisdom with us.

Oh Omid, I've lived that moment with my own children. For a short while I worked at a job where I was on call about 18 hours a day. Sometimes the last person I would talk to at night was the CEO, who loved having a PR person at his beck and call and believed it was his right to mull over crises (real and pretend) at his convenience. My boss did not support me by setting boundaries; my children did not understand why I so often had to jump up from the dinner table or why my cell phone seemed to be my new BFF. It was hell. I finally quit when I started having panic attacks in the middle of the night, no doubt anticipating what fun (irony) the next day would bring. I still mourn working in such an atmosphere of fear and I was unemployed for a long time before I found another job. Fortunately I've mended my relationships with my daughters, but I still feel very raw and scarred.

The 40-hour work week, for many, is only a distant memory. We are frightened into working unreasonable hours by a tight job market and bosses who take advantage of the situation. Work should make life possible; work should not be our lives.

So, so true. Thank you so much for another beautiful, poignant essay. Intimacy, trust, connection. Why have we societally let these go without objection?

Love is willingness to be interrupted as a continuation for HIS plan in preference to our plan!
Thanks for the reminder from my overflowing calendar full of reminders of my plans

Thank you so much for this post. This is exactly what I and so many people I know struggle with-gaining balance between all the aspects of this busy life and bringing them into one clear focus.Even if our parents raised us as good examples on how to "be",they never were faced with the challenges of this modern always "turned on, plugged in" world. Being present in the presence of loved ones turns out to be one of the greatest challenges of all. Being a divorced parent of three teenaged children and being in a new relationship with an amazing woman of ripe childbearing age this state of "busyness" has hindered my ability to see clearly on how to proceed with her. It's harder for people without children to appreciate just how difficult it is once you add offspring into the equation. I'm about to send this link to her and hopefully it can help us. Thank you so much!

We get so wrapped up in our "occupations" that when your close one talks, it seems as if it were an interruption. How often do we complain, "Oh, great, now you made me miss that!" Such an attitude is dehumanizing,it causes a separation of spirits. It is a killer of souls. Stop. Rest. Listen.

Thank you for this. This resonates so deeply for me. It's like we are present in body and physical form only. Our devices have taken hold of our minds, hearts and souls. Our children definitely also pay the price for this. The spaces in between the doing seem to be where the real living begins. The stopping. The being. The simple breath, the togetherness....So much more to say.

So targeted

Thank you M. Safi, for making us aware of the pristine quality of each moment, and our ability to instill it with joy.

love this point of view...this way of thinking, is so true...If I can hold on to this and remember to live it, I don't have to feel "less than" for being less "busy" myself and for our kids having having less scheduled activities than some of their friends. Thank you for sharing this wisdom

This is seriously important. At 74 I still keep too busy to be as present as I should be to my husband of 52 years. I long for better friendships and more loving relationships with those in my life but when do I give them my attention and time? Thank you for this wonderful essay.

I feel one of the most significant insights in this article is that being super busy makes us feel we matter. It's ridiculous to go through life like that. Most of us aren't firefighters or emergency room personnel, but we often act as if we are, that what we're doing is earth-shaking. It's a good idea to realize that in most cases, we are replaceable at work, but not among those who love us.

I've also noticed that many, many people stay busy to avoid being intimate and quiet with *themselves.*

Jack, oh Jack. Oh my gosh and thank you for representing! I read your comment (after digesting the excellent piece above) and it seemed like déjà vu. For how often I have heard the same "Oh, great, now you have made me miss that" phrase from a boyfriend addicted to busyness. He has sorely earned an "A" in the dehumanization department and is addicted to the evil black claws of techno gadgets, overwhelming daily work goals and mind-numbing sports watching (avoiding intimacy). He is not the only one and I see the glass-eyed stress look in many a passersby as they fly past me glued to their phones - a startling collective indicative of the Borg Continuum. Sigh. I have refused to assimilate.

We need a purified singularity of intention, a clear sense of hope which translates in a Persian as omid safi - hah!

I am so tired of seeing only the tops of my grandkids heads...

Yep! Busyness is the Valium that numbs the fear of silence. But this fear is unfounded for in this silence is our being's first love. If we could cure this fear, the pharmaceutical industry would collapse.

You actually touch hearts and souls Omid. You are a gift to humankind! How many of us will stop and think about this "disease of busyness?"
From this day on, I will and many more who have read these blogs.

Omid, as a fellow spiritual/religious professional (I'm a chaplain at a university and at a hospital), I appreciate both your efforts to responsibly show up for your professional roles, and your clarity that no job (even tending others' spirits) should take us away from our family time. My partner asked me to read your article, and I trust it will nurture our relationship. Many thanks.

Your words resonate very much. Thank you for writing and sharing them. My family has recently moved to Iceland and found it to be among other things a place where kids can get dirty, be free, explore, be bored, kick stones on their walk to school etc. the pace is slower and calmer and less franticly busy. This kind of calm, and space for thoughtfulness is reviving and centering. Remembering to also click off the iPhone,iPad or laptop especially when small feet are around is important. Remembering to be also in the 'now' and physical presence of life that is near, to soak it up.

Busyness is another strategy the mind uses to disconnect us from our inner being first and foremost and once we are disconnected from our authentic self we are disconnected from everything. We are one mind thus if my mind is lost and wondering in a world where everything external is cherished then what is left?

I totally agree. Spending time with the ones you love is priceless...Wonderful article - one that should be contemplated and remembered.... and advice followed.

Thank you.

My 11 yr old said to me this week, "Mom, you are never home." I had been out 8 out of 13 evenings. That's not my usual schedule, but it was wearing on me and obviously impacted my daughter. There are many good things I can do with my time,but that does not mean they are the BEST things. I am saying "no, to good things," to be home with my family - the BEST thing.

This is beautifully written and much appreciated. Thank you.

Today I went to lunch with my two year old. I brought a piece of paper and a pen. I was present for fifteen minutes. No phone. He savored every bite of chili. My pen was dry. I looked out the window and smiled at a man rolling by, with two sleeping bags strapped to the back of his chair. He smiled at me. I gave my smile to the woman I passed in the yogurt section, to the elderly man shopping for beer, to the checkout lady who is allergic to Coconut "BEWARE".
I reminded myself "It isn't me" when they didn't return the smile. That is okay. Not for them today. For my son and the homeless man.
We have to make the systems work. And stop for lunch. And stop for fairyland visits.
Thank you for your blog.

I am now in my 15th year of retirement. It has been quite easy to avoid business.
In fact, I would like to have somebody to help. I've done no remunerative or volunteer work in these 15 years. The problem Safi posits is not a problem I have.
I've felt to compulsive need to fill up my time. But I'm not sure I've received the rewards implied in keeping my life and time open.

Thank you for this. I know too that you are a wonderful Baba, looking up when you could have looked back down. Today my daughter Willa (10) wandered into my outdoor office wanting connection. I was working, because - as I said - I was in my outdoor office. The moment I said, "I'm here, but I'm not HERE" to her,and saw the dejection on her face and told myself that I was justified, it still being working hours, I decided to take Contrary Action (a phrase I learned in the 12 steps) and took just five more minutes to pull her into my lap and to become so silly that she laughed until she cried, then sent her a way with a kiss, an inhale of her delicious still-baby-skin and a smile. Oh, it was good. And right. Thank you for thinking so deeply and sharing your thoughts.

Omid, thank you for taking us on your intimate journey through the silver rectangle into where the soul, the everlasting child of God within holds court with the another mystic has said...Judge ourselves constantly to see where we fail; then, in Prayer, ask for pardon and right guidance" Hazrat Inayat Khan. The inner smile i feel is the surest evidence of the presence of the twirling, dancing One. Blessings. Amin

well said.

You have done such a great job getting at the heart of something I struggle most with. My partner Stephen is a good Midwestern "Type A" to-do list checker-offer, and we sometimes have trouble meeting in the middle as I carry on as a good slow Southerner. Several weeks ago we were in the mountain town of Black Mountain, North Carolina when we saw a little tile that had an old Eastern proverb (Lao Tzu maybe) that said something to the effect of "Move slowly, for there are few moments in life." My heart sighed and Steve just laughed and said he figured I'd like that. It was genuinely funny to him and genuinely heart breaking for me. It is amazing how vital and complex such a simple difference in approach really can be. It's amazing how much the habits we form dictate the shape of our life and how they are often go unexamined. Stephen and I, well we find a happy medium as he helps me to complete tasks and I help him to notice the sunlight in the dining room. But without an open recognition and conversation about our own mentalities and how they manifest, we would not be able to share the intimacy we do. Thanks for opening up this conversation!

I am so glad i came across this article. It needs to be shouted to the world! Thank you!

Busyness robs us of intimacy

So beautiful and so eloquently written. Intimacy, no doubt, is the single most important desire of mankind. Yet, we all tend to walk on paths that lead us in the opposite direction. Spending time with machines will make us machines...heartless and subsequently loveless and soon lifeless.
Fortunate are those who hear the cries of their souls and wake up the person sleeping inside them.
Once awake, we realize what we have been missing and from that moment onwards we become ever-present and conscious of the love that surrounds us in the shape of our loved ones...daughters being at the top of the list!
Thank you for sharing.

I accidently stumbled upon this...riveting, elegant, insightful and succinct. Thank you, Mr. Safi, for the "aha" moment and my now elevated awareness.

Be still and know that I am God.

thank you for sharing this with us , keep up the good work . a absolutely agrees with the sentiments shared here