URGENT OR ESSENTIAL?
We are being devoured by urgency. It is voracious beyond belief. It is taking us over like a vicious cancer. It comes through the door, down the phone, by email, everywhere: calls that “demand” to be answered straight away, jobs that need to be hurried, meetings that are urgently put forward on the agenda, emails that demand you confirm you’ve received them and ask you to reply without delay; all kinds of interruptions that march in without knocking and tend to invade you, stamped “Urgent!” to justify the harassment. We’re being insistently urged to run the marathon at a sprint.
Urgent yet inefficient. Different studies show that up to 80% of the working day can be wasted on interruptions and apparently urgent tasks. I say “apparently” because often such urgent matters turn out not to be so crucial. There’s no need to deny that some things are really urgent and important, but there are less of them than we think.
There are many causes behind this incessant activity, but one of them is surely the fact that there are people who live off causing chaos and anxiety with urgency as their pretext, merely to assure their own control, their “power” and position. Characters who might have positions of authority, but who lack the necessary skills do really do their jobs competently. Professionalism and efficiency tend towards discretion, humility and elegance. But to urge and to pressurize are one and the same; people who don’t know how to manage others efficiently and humanely often pressurize those around them simply to feel like the top dog or alpha male. Actually, they’re more like the most irritating fly in the swarm. Urgency is mostly an eloquent disguise for incompetence, stupidity and inner emptiness.
The illnesses of urgency. According to the WHO, the numbers of depressed people in the workplace are rising because of pressure and anxiety, clear symptoms of urgency. So much so that it is now common to hear statements such like these:
- “I just haven’t had the time to go to the toilet today.” Imagine!
- “I can’t get sick next week and I hope nothing crucial comes up – my agenda’s completely full.”
- “I’m running late for my yoga class! This is too much!”
Expressions like these serve to illustrate our own senselessness and a lifestyle that is, to put it mildly, unhealthy. Comments often made in irony, sometimes in resignation, sometimes innocently, in a description of how we’re enslaved by our engagements, hurry, or the clock. Voices of stressed, irritated, anonymous workers imprisoned or victimised by “urgency” foisted on them by someone else, and often by themselves, too.
In the wonderful book “Tuesdays with Morrie”, Morrie Schwartz, the main character, who’s a wise old professor living his last days and giving lessons in life to a well-loved ex-student of his, says, “Part of the problem (…) is that everyone is in such a hurry. People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find those things are empty too, and they keep running.” Professor Schwartz sees things with stark common sense!
Rather than searching for the deep, private causes of the urgency inside us we prefer to use an analgesic or quick plaster to mask the sharpness of our pain. Or even pick up that special kind of milk or multivitamin product that promises to reinforce our immune system so we just won’t have to stop until we break down. And that is also true for the children in our households, who have to race through every day on full power.
Being used to living in societies infatuated with techniques which offer the illusion of making things easier, we find it hard to accept that making shortcuts won’t give us a quality lifestyle. The temporary relief of a shortcut can give us a boost, though, which we feed back into our occupations and into keeping our minds full without stopping to wonder if what we’re doing is actually what really matters, or whether it really adds any worth to our projects, tasks, relationships, environment or ourselves. A quality lifestyle is seldom built on speed and certainly not on urgency. What you do and how you do it is more important than how fast you get it done.
When essentials put an end to urgency. We all know we’re going to die one day, but we find it hard to believe. It’s probably only when life forces us to stand up and take notice, when illness strikes, after a serious accident, or the death of a loved one –only then do we face up to the essentials, to life’s most crucial issues, those that normally have to do with meaningfulness (Why are we alive?) or love. Then, urgency loses its strength and wilts, while the important things, the essentials, burgeon into life, bringing a blush even to the most hardened cheeks.
Because urgency engulfs the essential. Dealing with our daily crises literally burdens our ability to think calmly, to cultivate our networks of talent and caring, to dialogue with others and ourselves, to step back and gain perspective, to live in a kind of creative, healing silence.
“Being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook,” said William James. Perhaps we live and bring about all this urgency in order to fill the emptiness that comes of our voraciousness. The sense of permanent urgency disappears when we realise that the essentials, the things we can’t see, our affections, even just ourselves, are enough for us.
PS. The Greeks in their wisdom had two ideas of time. “Kronos” was the concept of chronological time, the passing of the seconds, the movement of the hands or blinking of the digital figures on the clock. “Kairós” referred to the quality of the time they spent. Urgency causes Kronos to speed rapidly by and as it does so, it literally kills Kairós.
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