US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Time crunched: How busy schedules are sapping our spirit

By Thomas J. Billitteri | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
How busy schedules are sapping our spirit.

After 15 years in the feverish world of corporate technology sales, Lu Ann Polejewski, mother of two, decided to make a change-or, as she says, to "re-engineer" her career. She now works from her suburban Minneapolis home as a business consultant, earning less money than she did during her sales career but spending more time with her family.

"There comes a point when there's no more time and something has to give," Polejewski says. "What I would tell others who are struggling to balance family and spiritual issues is that we can't go after all this materialism and not plan for other things. The reality is that our world is tech-driven and fast-paced. But if we don't manage it, it's going to manage us."

Polejewski's words point to what many scholars and religious thinkers contend is a deep and growing crisis in American culture: the loss of time available for family, friendships, spiritual and psychological growth, and personal reflection. This "race against time" is sapping the private and communal soul, not only robbing individuals of satisfying lives but also undermining the economic and social institutions that support a healthy society.

Life in the fast lane

"Our belief is that if 40 hours is good, then 80 must be sensational," says Tim J. McGuire, a retired newspaper executive who now writes and speaks on work and spirituality issues. "And that's part of the economic drive, that ‘this year has to be 10 percent better than last year, and we have to grow market share by 10 percent.' It's all these drives creating the time bind, and all of those things pulling us farther and farther away from meaning and purpose."

Meaning and purpose are difficult to muster in a world of personal digital assistants and globalization.

"In our day-to-day lives we humans think we're in charge of the whole show, and until we stop and acknowledge the power of God or Nature or ‘Being' or Spirit we may delude ourselves into thinking it's all about us," says Gary Eberle, author of Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning (Shambhala).

"Unless we periodically enter sacred time, we lose track of the important values we need to run our lives in the world of work, where we have to make day-to-day decisions," adds Eberle. "As individuals and as a culture we're not entering sacred time. And so we wind up with frantic, hurry, run-run-run lives where people are afraid to stop because they have grown afraid of silence."

Organized efforts to slow the frantic pace of modern life have become more in vogue in recent years, from the so-called simplicity movement-a Thoreauian backlash against consumer rapaciousness and environmental waste-to the Italian-born Slow Food movement, which promotes everything from ecologically friendly food production to meaningful dinner conversation.

While such alliances have attracted a following, however, they are not without compromise and contradiction. One popular magazine that extols the "simple" way of life is stuffed with ads for high-priced cosmetics and luxury cars. And while proponents often look to Europe as a model of less work and more leisure, some Europeans no doubt wish they had the time problems facing Americans. In Germany the number of unemployed is at its highest level since World War II and in France the government is trying, in the face of stiff opposition from unions, to increase overtime and allow longer working hours in an effort to make the economy more competitive.

Still, it is hardly a matter of debate that in the United States the merry-go-round is turning faster and faster. Scholars such as Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American (HarperCollins), argue that time spent on the job has risen drastically in recent decades, contrary to predictions that rising productivity would slash work time. Leisure, Schor writes, has been "a conspicuous casualty of prosperity."

Family matters

Children are especially burdened by society's pell-mell pace. William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and a widely known writer and activist on the time issue, cites data from a variety of studies showing that free time among younger children has fallen sharply in recent decades, as have religious participation and the incidence of family dinners, a predictor of kids' academic success and physical and psychological health. Meanwhile, structured sports, homework, and other activities take up more and more of children's time, while unstructured play consumes less and less.

"The way we are organizing our work lives and children's school and activities environment, it takes an extraordinary effort for an average family to have enough time together," Doherty says. "It isn't just a question of individual families' habits or motivations. The deck is stacked against them."

Doherty sees family time as a public issue. When work and leisure are out of balance, he says, the result can be broken marriages and social problems among children. But the time problem also can be improved through democratic action, public education, and community planning, he says.

Doherty has helped form several groups in the Twin Cities area designed to address what he calls the problem of "overscheduled kids and underconnected families." One approach involves giving a seal of approval to athletic groups that refrain from scheduling practices on Sunday mornings, tournaments on three-day weekends, and otherwise eating deeply into family and vacation time. The effort is now on hold.

"We couldn't get enough organizations to apply" for the seal, Doherty says. "The four groups that did apply and got it were already doing a good job."

Now, with a new parents' group he is starting in another Minnesota community, Doherty says he is thinking of organizing a parent boycott of Sunday sports. "It's time to be a bit edgier," he says.

Take back your time

One of the most prominent efforts to educate Americans about the time issue is a three-year-old Seattle-based group called Take Back Your Time, which Doherty and a handful of other activists help to guide. Take Back Your Time, which battles what it sees as an epidemic of overwork in America, promotes an annual "Take Back Your Time Day," October 24, to heighten public awareness of the issue.

National coordinator John de Graaf says although such voluntary efforts are important, changes in social policy also are needed. "The way our society is organized promotes this unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle," he says.

The group is pushing legislative proposals that include paid childbirth leave for all parents, at least one week of paid sick leave and at least three weeks of paid vacation for all workers, a cap on compulsory overtime, and hourly wage parity and benefit protection for part-time workers. It also would make federal Election Day a holiday.

"We think overwork is literally killing Americans, and it certainly is creating many, many problems for our society in health, family life, friendships and relationships, the ability to participate and volunteer in the community, the ability to be good environmental stewards, and in people's spiritual lives," de Graaf says.

Warped priorities

Nowhere are the causes and consequences of the time bind more starkly revealed than in the choices people make in the pursuit of money, status, and competitive advantage.

"We live in a consumer culture where to reap the benefits of that culture-to live by consuming-is really the chief goal, the operating value, and we'll sacrifice for that by working harder," Doherty says.

This perverse calculus is perhaps most evident in the massive homes that are muscling their way into American suburbs and rising citadel-like in the countryside. Not only do they consume inordinate amounts of space and energy, they can sap the richness of life from their owners.

"People want larger homes; they mortgage themselves to the hilt, two parents are working outside the home to make the mortgage payment, they're killing themselves with work, there's less time for family life and less time for a healthy spiritual life, and they begin to wonder why they feel empty," says the Rev. Diane Kessler, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and a minister in the United Church of Christ.

The council has helped to promote the Take Back Your Time message through brochures and information on its website, (, a special Lenten devotion that reminds the faithful that "we live in God's time," and studies on labor and leisure and Sunday blue laws.

It also helped start a program called "Four Windows of Time," in which people are encouraged to block out four periods between Labor Day and Take Back Your Time Day "to rest and re-create balance." Says Kessler, "I got more unsolicited calls from clergy and laity about that initiative than I remember receiving in my 30 years here, which says to me that we struck a raw nerve."

There's no place like work

As important as social policy changes and institution-wide programs may be in helping to bring the clock and calendar to heel, individual choice is also crucial. Many people elect to make their work lives busier and their leisure time shorter than they need to be.

That is a paradox Arlie Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California in Berkeley, has observed firsthand through her research. Yet Hochschild sees this pattern as more the result of the social pressures and corporate conventions under which Americans live and work than as a critique of individual motivations, values, or character.

Hochschild spent three summers of intense research inside a Fortune 500 company for The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (Metropolitan), one of several books she has written on work, commercialization, and other aspects of the economic culture.

"I had gone to study the use of family-friendly policies-the kind that allows parents to have more time at home such as career sabbaticals, part-time work, job sharing, flex-time, and parental leave," Hochschild says. "This company was a very good-guy company, but I discovered that while those policies were in a shiny brochure, people weren't taking advantage of them. Yet in one survey after another they were claiming to be very stressed for time."

Hochschild also found that managers had shaped the company in ways that made it something of a surrogate family, with recognition ceremonies, highly social production teams, promotion parties, and other hallmarks of a close-knit household.

"Virtually everyone said, ‘I value family more than I value work,' " Hochschild says. But she adds, "When I asked people, ‘Where do you feel most recognized for the part of yourself that you want to be recognized?' people would give me complex answers, but a surprising number would say with some ambivalence, ‘at work.'

"When I asked, ‘Where do you feel good at what you do?' people would say, ‘I feel good at work, but at home it's baffling.' When I asked, ‘Where do you feel safest?' most said ‘at home' but some said, ‘Look, I've been working at this company for 30 years, but I'm on my third marriage. My pink slip's at home. I feel more existentially secure at work.'

"So there was a contradiction between what people valued and where they found their gratification.

"One of the refrains I kept hearing in my interviews is ‘we do it to ourselves,' " Hochschild says. Yet she says of the employees, "They lived in a world that made them their own worst enemy." Many whom she interviewed were "living in families that are depleted" by life's pressures, and many in the higher rungs of the corporation enjoyed enticing alternatives to the stresses of family life, Hochschild says.

"My final calculation was that 20 percent of workers found that work was kind of like a home, and home was a little like work."

Ideas that work

Of course, countless people do find ways-sometimes modest, sometimes bold-to stop the treadmill, or at least slow it down. In the Twin Cities, as one example, both approaches are easy to find.

Ann Marie Fritz, a 45-year-old divorced Catholic woman with children ages 9 and 11, takes an hour during the middle of the day for rest, reflection, quiet, and prayer, a regimen she has learned as an affiliate of the international Cenacle Sisters, a congregation that emphasizes prayer, community, and spiritual ministry.

Fritz says her children adjusted to her quiet time quite easily. "Part of it is that it gave them a sense of security, knowing I had some sort of spiritual commitment," she says. What she learned from her hours of retreat, she says, is that "God is telling you where to go and what to do, if you're quiet enough to listen."

While Fritz has taken a contemplative approach to the pressures of life, Karen Oman has used her business skills to address the problem.

Oman had something of an epiphany the day she got distracted by a long meeting and missed her 4-year-old daughter's Christmas play. (Her daughter was playing Mary.) She eventually quit her job as a high-powered corporate accountant and in 1994 started Certes Financial Pros, a service that provides companies with accountants and other financial executives on a temporary or project basis.

Her company pays attention to work-life issues. For instance, it provides unusual benefits such as the free use of company-owned vacation homes and up to six months leave of absence without a loss of benefits. It shapes its employees' work assignments to their scheduling needs and invites their input on what projects they work on and how much they'll earn.

Oman's company, whose clients include General Mills and Best Buy, now has 150 employees and revenue of nearly $12 million, more than double the level five years earlier, she says. Her list of accolades includes recognition as one of 10 Fortune Small Business magazine's Best Bosses and Working Woman magazine's Entrepreneurial Excellence Award for National Best Employer.

Oman says that when she interviews prospective employees, "it's not about ‘what can you do for the company?' it's ‘what do you want out of your life?' It's about giving people the time to manage their own lives so they have space to do what they need to do, what their souls tell them to do. They come to us bloodied by life. There is just not enough time to get it all done. The main reason people are joining us is that they want to get home in time for dinner."

Practicing what they preach

Enlightened employers can do a lot to keep the frenzy of modern life at bay and so, too, can organized religion. Yet many churches fail to make a spiritual issue of the time pressures on their parishioners, sometimes because the clergy themselves are caught up in a rat race that rivals that of the people in the pews.

"Rarely does the pastor tell somebody who is on three committees that maybe they should be home more," says Doherty.

He says one reason many clergy are reluctant to speak out is that they fear being viewed as hypocrites. They work so many hours themselves, and in the case of Protestant clergy they spend so much time away from their own families they might sound disingenuous if they preach about simplifying and scaling back, he says.

"Clergy have trouble finding their voice on this issue because of the ambivalence in their own lives."

As institutions, churches also can be prone to the seductions of the buy-and-succeed culture. It is common these days to hear about the congregation that has gone neck-deep into debt to build the Trump Tower of sanctuaries or buy the Rolls Royce of church organs.

More pernicious perhaps are the subtle ways in which some churches, especially those allied with conservative political and economic ideals, preach family values while simultaneously promoting a gospel of wealth and material success. Such churches, says Hochschild, "have joined hands with the very market forces that erode family life. They call for family values, but on the other hand they are for deregulating business. They are not on the workers' side and not on the family's side."

Faith can be a haven from the insanity of modern culture. But religious services and private reflection often are pushed aside in favor of more worldly pursuits, or they become just one more thing on the to-do list.

"The consolation and joy one can experience in the presence of God can only be experienced when you can rest in that presence," says John Farina, who directs the Catholicism and Civic Renewal project at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "You can go to Mass, say your prayers, and even then not experience it because it's just one more activity."

The irony is that the Catholic liturgy is shaped in ways that can encourage people to leave behind the distractions of secular time and enter sacred time, says Eberle, chairman of the English Department at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

"The Catholic Mass in particular is brilliantly organized to do that, but it depends on the individual entering with the right intention and understanding," he says.

The holy water font at the entrance of the church provides for a " ‘decontamination ritual,' where we can cleanse ourselves from the outer world after we cross the threshold of the church," Eberle says.

"Early in the Mass comes a movement back in time to the origins of the church with the reading of scripture. Then the ritual moves forward in sacred time to the transformational moment of the Consecration, followed by Communion, in which the individual becomes united with God. Finally comes the exit ritual, the ‘go in peace,' which moves the faithful out of sacred time and back into the temporal world.

"It's absolutely brilliant, but what I see is people chatting, acting like they're at a country club, not bringing intentionality to the Mass or entering into it imaginatively," Eberle says.

The same might be said for the countless moments each day when people have a half hour here and there to slow down and contemplate the important things in life. Such moments often are wasted amid the temptations and distractions of popular culture.

"Many people find it absolutely frightening to go to the chair and just sit for 25 minutes and wonder about stuff," says McGuire, the retired newspaper executive. "That's very intimidating for people."