The American bustle

Americans walk fast.

I first made this observation when I landed in Atlanta last week. I was slowly herded off my plane and shoved out the jetway into the terminal where I met a sea of Americans. I had not seen that many in one place since I left two years ago. They were all zipping around in their standard issue blue dress shirts, or alternately, with their fluorescent shoe laces, fiddling with a cellphone, iPod or other electronic device of choice.

The bathrooms were on the other side of the terminal and I needed to powder my nose. I attempted to make my way across the steady stream of people; however, my efforts at crossing were continuously thwarted by the crowds who were more concerned about their destination or phone call than they were anything going on around them. I felt like I was playing Frogger the live edition. It was then I decided Americans walk too fast.

Of course, I was in an airport, and all 700 of these people were inevitably late for their flight. At least, that is what I told myself at the time.

Since then, I have watched Americans walk too fast in stores, down the street, and through the park. I have watched them drive too fast, hundreds of cars barreling down the interstate at the same time. Everyone seems to be running everywhere they go, always trying to get there as fast as possible.

Why is that?

It is because there is not enough time in the day. It is because the early bird gets the worm. it is because time is money. And we Americans are good at making money.

Since I returned from my time overseas, people have posed a dozen questions, but the one that keeps cropping up seems to be about the differences I see between the two places. “What is the biggest difference you notice now that you are back?” people keep asking.

The differences are too many to name, and I know new ones will continue to creep into view. Yet, one thing has been blatant since my first footstep on US soil, the American bustle.

The American bustle marks us as a culture and a people. We appear to be the busiest people in the world. Notice I did not say hardest working. That would not be true. I said busiest.

In the villages of Africa, things were different. People are indeed hard workers. As a matter of fact, they work far harder than any Americans I know. They work to live. All of their hard work is necessary simply to provide food and basic life needs. Yet, life is not consumed by busyness there. They live at a slower pace. They value relational time, and often, it is the only thing they have to give someone.

It is not so with us. Americans live to work.

From the time our eyes open in the morning until our head hits the pillow at night, our days are filled with appointments, meetings, conferences, errands, to-do lists, chores, and events. People actually go to scheduled events that teach them how to save time. Does anyone else see the irony in that?

Two parents will schedule “play dates” for their kids. Really, play dates? We might as well call it a recreational conference. Furthermore, what do we call it when we are in a romantic relationship with someone? We call it dating. Why? Because the whole institution is set up around corresponding activities to dates on a calendar.

I am reminded of a comment made by a dear African friend. She and her husband visited the States to spend time fellowshipping with some churches that partnered with their work in Africa. Toward the end of her trip she was asked how she liked it in America. Her response was priceless. She stated that everything here was so nice, far nicer than the things in Africa. But she could not understand why Americans would spend so much time working to acquire things they were too busy to use. In order to have the nice stuff, she concluded, you had to stay so busy you could not enjoy the stuff for which you were working.

The Bible has a lot to say about work. In Proverbs, Solomon frequently warns against laziness and encourages hard work. We should indeed be hard workers. Yet, there is a difference between work and busyness. Work is a means to achieve a goal. Busyness is making work itself the goal. It is work for work’s sake.

We are real good at busyness in the States. For some, it makes them feel accomplished. If they can stay busy, it means they have an important life. For others, it is simply the means of getting those status symbols they need to feel like they are successful. Yet, they spend all their time making enough money to buy a boat they will never have time to use.

Furthermore, it seems busyness can be the death of real discipleship. When it comes to the things God has told us to make a priority (discipleship, studying God’s word, prayer, and service to his kingdom), it is far easier not to do them if you have an excuse. We fill our lives with so many little chores we often have no time left for the things that make an eternal difference.

What a backwards way of living.

Are you working to live, or are you living to work?

3 Comments

  1. dawuda suma said:

    Wow. This is truly a phenomenon unique to western society, particularly fueled in the US.
    I have blogged in the past about quirks i’ve discovered in West Africa that US Americans would find humorous (http://smoiblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/here-we-come.html).
    I’ve neglected to write about the the quirks i’ve seen in US American culture, one, because i have no West African readers i know of. And two, because most US Americans would probably not find the quirks too humorous, due to their toes getting stepped on.
    It’s easy to point and laugh from the States, “Those silly West Africans.” It’s not so easy to laugh, “We silly Americans.”
    Bravo. Sometimes toes need to be stepped on… especially by people playing Frogger in the airport.

    August 17, 2011
    Reply
    • Keelan said:

      You know all too well that you wind up with a unique perspective bouncing back and forth between two cultures. It at least gives you a more objective position from which to see your own.

      August 23, 2011
      Reply
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