In “The Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales Chaucer introduces the Man of Law, one of the characters on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Beckett, with these famous lines: “No one in England matched his bustling about,/ But still, he wasn’t so busy as he always made out.”
How can a person be busy but not busy? A legal scholar with a distinguished reputation, the Man of Law impressed all his clients with his expertise and erudition: “He knew all legal jargon, and every case/ Since William the Conqueror had taken his place:/ On his throne . . . . He’d memorized all laws/ On the books.”
Busy both in the courts of law in London and in other towns, the Man of Law also speculates in real estate: “He bought up all the land he could, swift/ And silent, precise, and knowing how to draft/ His deeds.” The Man of Law appears to live an active life with a full agenda, always in demand and always preoccupied with legal matters and business ventures.
Why does Chaucer make his wry comment that the Man of Law “wasn’t so busy as he always made out”?
No one is THAT busy…
Of all the excuses invented by man to cover a multitude of situations and to justify unavailability, none is more prolific than the response “I’m too busy.” Of course people who work are occupied with responsibilities and do not have all the leisure in the world to accommodate everyone’s requests. However, if a person is busy on Monday, he should not be equally busy on Saturday or Sunday.
If a person’s work is demanding during seasons and cycles like the sowing and the harvest of the field, the intensity of the work does not persist in all the seasons or months of the year. No one works at the same pace every day, week, month, or year. Busyness is an all-purpose excuse for all seasons.
A person has no time to read, exercise, or pray. A person has no time to call, visit, or write a letter. A person has no time to attend social occasions, host parties, enjoy outings with friends, attend cultural events, or pursue a favorite hobby. The explanation is always the same: I have no time. I am too busy.
No one can be that busy. No one works all the time day and night seven days a week or has a schedule with no free moments at his disposal. Chaucer hints that the busiest people are often the most distracted, filling their time with many trivial, frivolous, or unnecessary activities or burdening themselves with projects, distractions, and unnecessary work deliberately to avoid the more social, civilizing, and human activities that lend balance and contrast to an active life.
Excessive busyness can arise out a compulsive restlessness that breeds the incessant activity known as “workaholism,” an inability to be at peace or have a sense of leisure. Human experience requires both an active life and a contemplative life.
Fishing: the best activity
Izaak Walton’s classic The Complete Angler (1653) not only passes on a fisherman’s lore on how to catch fish but also gives practical advice instruction on how to avoid the snares of busyness with its anxiety about the “fears of many things that will never be.”
He explains that those businessmen who are too busy for recreation like fishing belong to a category of “poor-rich-men” notorious for their gravity and worry, “men that are condemned to be rich, and then always busie or discontented.”
Recalling the ancient debates about the active life versus the contemplative life and the story of Mary and Martha in the New Testament, Walton praises angling as the perfect union of activity and leisure.
He observes that Christ never condemned the occupation of the fisherman (the work of his disciples Peter, Andrew, James, and John) in the way he castigated the activity of the tax collectors and the Pharisees: “First that he never did reprove these for their Imployment or Calling, as he did the Scribes and the Money-Changers.” Busyness characterizes a preoccupation with getting, saving, and accumulating that reveals no trust in Divine Providence.
The compulsively busy who lose the sense of balance between action and contemplation deprive themselves of the many benefits that recreation and leisure bestow. Walton recollects that angling produces effects that bring health to the mind, heart, and soul. Man gains
“a rest to his mind, a chearer of his spirits, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a diverter of sadness, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness.”
The mind needs rest just as the body needs sleep, and the weariness of labor needs the relief of cheerfulness. Without these natural medicines of wholesome recreation, the mind develops the itch of restlessness that always seeks more, never recognizes the virtue of temperance, or finds contentment in the sufficiency of “enough.”
The spirit remains grave, ponderous, and oppressed without the spontaneity of lightheartedness or childlike fun that angling offers. Busyness detracts rather than adds to cheerfulness and tires rather than rejuvenates. When unquiet thoughts rob a person of both innocence and peace, they lead him into temptation.
Busyness keeps imagining more work to be done and more money to be earned. All the seven deadly sins originate in “unquiet thoughts” or the uncontrollable or insatiable desires that accompany avarice, lust, and gluttony. Busyness by its tendency to be distracted from one thing to the next is not conducive to quiet, reflection, or simplicity.
Sadness without relief breeds cynicism, hopelessness, and a sense of world weariness or ennui that afflicts a person with an insensibility to goodness, beauty, and joy. Busyness as an end in itself reduces life to incessant activity or productivity in which one lives to work rather than works to play—a cycle that is enervating and exhausting because a person goes from one thing to the next to the next without a clear sense of priority or purpose.
The passions without moderation, order, or tranquility race like the wild horses of the charioteer that run riot unless checked and moderated by the reins of the master. Busyness constantly whets the desire to increase possessions, go more places, buy more items, seek bigger things, gain more status, and earn more glory.
As Walton concludes, the “poor-rich-men” never know contentedness, the state mind that accompanies an honest day’s work, a clear conscience, the joy of simple pleasures like hunting or fishing, an appreciation of the taste of life’s goodness relished after the fresh fish is caught, cooked, and shared with friends in mirthful conversation.
While work is a virtue as St. Benedict taught (laborare est orare—to work is to pray), busyness is not holiness. As Christ explained to the busy Martha, Mary “hath the better part.”
While the leisurely angler learns the virtue of patience, the busy worker lives in a state of impatience. While the angler enjoys the companionship of fishing (“Good company makes the way seem short”), the businessman is too busy for friendship.
While the fisherman is easily contented because “content will never dwell but in a meek and quiet soul” grateful to God because He has given him enough to be happy with a little, the restless rich man “is always so busie, that he hath no leasure to laugh; the whole business of his life is to get money, and more money, that he may still get more and more money.”
Fishing image © Zsolnai Gergely / Dollar Photo Club