Too Busy to Care (March 25, 2012 )

posted Jul 4, 2011, 12:04 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 5, 2012, 8:11 PM ]

        Last week, I was invited to Columbia College to participate on a panel of representatives of various religions, from Christianity, Judaism, and Mormonism to Buddhism, Islam, paganism, and Unitarian Universalism.  Our own Hal French spoke for Hinduism, and I sat next to the representative of Sikhism, Gov. Nikki Haley's father.  Don't worry, I was a true Southern gentleman and didn't say one unkind word about his daughter … though I had to bite my tongue.  On my way to this religious gathering, an ironic event occurred.  I came to an intersection where an older man's car had stalled, and he was trying to push it by himself to the side of the road.  I paused for a moment as I considered stopping to help him, but I realized that I was already cutting it close with my time and would probably be late if I did, so I pressed the accelerator and continued on my way.  Then I laughed at myself as I realized that I was enacting the Parable of the Good Samaritan, only I wasn't portraying the Samaritan. 

        All you former Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Catholics remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan, don't you?  Well, you Episcopalians and Catholics probably don't since you guys didn't read the Bible.  But everyone else remembers it.  It's Jesus' most renown parable, and it's the quintessential story in Western literature about helping others.  Two thousand years after it was originally told, we still refer to people who go out of their way to help others as Good Samaritans. 

        You know the story.  A traveler is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road, and a religious leader, a priest, comes upon the man, and, in the words of the parable, "passes by on the other side."  Then another religious leader, a Levite, comes upon the man, and he, too, passes by on the other side.  But then a Samaritan comes down the road, and when he sees the man, he is moved with compassion, and he stops and binds up his wounds, sets him upon his donkey, takes him to an inn to be cared for, and even pays his bills. 

        I'm embarrassed to confess that on that particular night on my way to the religious panel, I behaved as a typical religious leader and passed by on the other side.  To add irony on top of irony, our discussion was about the  meaning of religion.  It was a fine philosophical discussion that was the envy of any Unitarian.  Jesus ended his parable with the injunction, "Go and do likewise."  In other words, he turned what could have been a fine theological discussion into an existential moral imperative.  "Go and do likewise."  On that night, I failed the test of what makes religion meaningful.  It's not that I didn't care.  I did.  I have been in similar circumstances myself, and I know how frustrating and helpless it feels to be in those situations.  It's just that I didn't have time to help.  If I were more honest with myself, I would have realized that I didn't make time to help.  It's a matter of priorities, isn't it?  I remember what a wise man once told me, Rev. John Ryberg, the liberal Baptist minister who was a mentor of mine, a father figure, really.  He told me that if you want to know what a person values, look at their checkbook and their calendar -- how they spend their money and their time. 

        I suspect many of us think that empathy is dependent on how much money we have.  "If I had more money, I would be more helpful."  But the facts don’t bear this out.  While I recognize that it has become commonplace these days not to let facts stand in the way of wishful thinking, I will share the facts with you nonetheless.  The fact is that study after study shows that lower-income people are more generous than upper-income people.  Households earning less than $25,000 a year give away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away half that much.  On the surface, this is counterintuitive.  You would think that the rich have money to spare.  They do, but they characteristically don't spare it.  And you would think that the poor don’t have resources to spare and that therefore giving represents a disproportionately greater personal sacrifice.  It does represent a greater  sacrifice, but they give anyway.

        When you think about it a little more, however, it makes sense because the life experience of the have's differs substantially from the life experience of the have-not's, and that's exactly what a group of psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley have found.  The Institute of Personality and Social Research has conducted twelve separate studies measuring empathy on "lower class" subjects (those making $15,000 a year) and on "upper class" subjects (those making more than $150,000 a year).  What these studies have discovered is that upper class people are less empathetic, less altruistic, and generally more selfish than those with less.  Lower class people are even better at reading the emotions of people than rich people.  "It's not that the upper classes are coldhearted," observes social psychologist Jennifer Stellar.  "They are just not as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven't had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.  Wealth tends to buffer people from attending to the needs of others.”  As people move up the income ladder, they have less practice with empathy and compassion.

        In the psycho-babble of the psychologists, "Upper class rank perceptions trigger a focus away from the context toward the self."  In the ordinary language of ordinary people, they are saying that rich people are more likely to think of themselves.  "They think that economic success and political outcomes and personal outcomes have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic," says professor Dacher Keltner.  Because the rich gloss over the ways that family connections, inheritances, and education have helped them, they tend to denigrate the role of government and vigorously oppose taxes to fund it.  Unlike the rich, lower class people have to depend on others for survival, so they learn to read people better, empathize more with others, and give more to those in need.

        What about us, those of us in this room, who are neither rich nor poor?  What determines the quality and quantity of our empathy?  I suspect that time plays a key role ... or I should say the lack of time.  Let me cite a classic study that, ironically, involves the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Seminary students, those preparing for ministry, were asked to prepare a lecture on the Good Samaritan.  Then the researchers instructed some of the students to hurry over to another building to present a lecture on the subject and told others that they had plenty of time, but that they might as well get there early.  Along the way to the lecture hall, they all passed someone who appeared to be gagging and fainting.  Only the students who thought they had plenty of time before they delivered their lecture on the Good Samaritan stopped to help.  I won't bore you with other studies, but suffice it to say that there is overwhelming research demonstrating what common sense tells us -- that people in a hurry don't have time to do even the simplest acts of kindness, like giving change for a dollar or helping a blind person across a street … or helping an elderly man push his stalled car out of an intersection.

        If this is true -- and it certainly is -- then you and I are in deep doo-doo because there has never been a more harried and hectic culture in history than ours, despite all of our time-saving technology.  Our time-saving technology is a perverse paradox:  the more time they save, the more we have to do.  I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed that our society has picked up the pace dramatically over the last 20-30 years because of the advent of the personal computer, the internet, cell phones, and more recently, PDAs, blackberries, iPods, and iPhones.  Back in the '50s, futurists predicted that the biggest problem facing human beings at the end of the millennium would be what to do with all the leisure time that machines would create.  Boy, did they get that wrong!

        You and I have to do more work in less time while constantly mastering new and ever-changing technical skills.  The main culprit of stress, of course, is that diabolical contraption called the computer.  The human brain has a processing speed of about four hertz, compared to a desktop computer with more than three gigahertz -- 75 million times faster.  It's an unfair competition that we are bound to lose.  It creates stress by overloading us with more data than we can possibly remember, manage, store, or retrieve.  I know I shouldn't, but I now take my laptop with me on vacation so I can keep up with those all-important emails and Facebook postings.  I would rather do that than come home to a long list of emails in my inbox.  A new word has been invented to describe our information overload -- datasmog.  Since I am a well-educated, well-informed, well-aware liberal, I have to keep up with everything that happens politically, religiously, and culturally.  Who knows what Santorum will say next or what those Kardashians will do next?  On some days, the datasmog gets so thick my head hurts. 

        These dastardly computers create stress by constantly requiring us to update them and to update our skills and knowledge in how to use them.  Today's new-and-improved version is tomorrow's antique.  You've got to keep up, or the technological train will leave you at the station.  Your old version of Windows will not open the latest Windows attachment, and all your friends will know you're a computer rube.

        These computers create stress with their continual malfunctions and crashes.  They mock us with their malfunctions and crashes.  They enjoy driving us into a conniption.  In his article Technostress in the Workplace, Peter Brillhart notes that one in four computers has been physically assaulted.  I have never physically assaulted my computer, but I have threatened to heave it off the balcony of my apartment. 

        These computers create stress by constantly interrupting you with the pinging of newly received emails.  You've got mail!  For God's sake, open it now!  Even when I turn the sound off, it's still tempting to keep checking those all-important emails and Facebook postings.  I don't know about you, but I find it harder and harder to concentrate and stay on task.  The University of California conducted a study of human-computer interactions at two high-tech firms and found that employees were interrupted roughly every 11 minutes.  That doesn't sound as frequent as I thought it would be.  But here's the rub:  the study found that it takes people an average of 25 minutes to get back on task, if they do so at all.  I know I find it increasingly difficult to prepare my sermons because sermons take blocks of uninterrupted time to read, think, reflect, and write, but it is nearly impossible to secure uninterrupted blocks of time for anything these days.  Even if the cell phone or the computer doesn't interrupt us, we interrupt ourselves by constantly checking our cell phones and computers. 

        Our society doesn't encourage concentrating but multitasking.  The term "multitasking" originally applied to computers, which can do several tasks simultaneously.  But the human brain is not built to multitask.  We think we can multitask well, but we can't.  Research shows over and over that we can toggle back and forth between two simple, unthinking tasks, but we cannot perform two complicated tasks well at all.  It turns out that my Grandfather Puckett was right after all when he used to tell me, "Boy, do one thing at a time.  You can't do two things at once."  Worse, with multitasking, we never get a sense of being finished and bringing things to completion, which also creates stress. 

        Our overly stimulated, highly distractible, multi-tasking, continually connected culture is creating an ADHD society, especially among young people, who are perpetually plugged in and whose young, malleable brains are still developing.  This may be the first generation in history who is incapable of mono-tasking.  They cannot drive a car, engage in conversation, read a book, watch TV, or listen to a lecture … or a sermon … without texting.  (You didn't think I noticed, did you?  You can hide from others, brothers and sisters, but you can't hide from God.)  Doonesbury is capturing our culture when it shows two of its young characters meeting for lunch and are not talking to each other because they are too busy texting and checking messages on their smartphones, which have literally thousands of applications for everything, from tracking your heart rate and guiding you to your next destination to washing your dishes and folding your laundry.  They are our latest technological "obsession"; I should say "addiction."  Do you know that some people actually name their smartphones and buy outfits for them?  The Pew Research Center has found that two-thirds of smartphone owners sleep with them right next to their beds.  When you have to sleep with your smartphone, I think that qualifies as an addiction. 

        Our so-called time-saving technology has brought about a profound shift in our lives that is especially stressful:  it has erased the line between our work and our personal lives.  We are never unplugged.  We never get a break from the stress of work.  On international beaches, how do you know who are the Americans?  They are the ones lying on the sand with their laptops.  When you experience stress, it takes its toll on your body.  Your heart rate and blood pressure increase.  Adrenaline, cortisol, and the other stress hormones are released into our bloodstreams so that we can fight or take flight, but since we don't fight or fly in our jobs, the stress hormones wear down our bodies, making us feel drained and exhausted. 

        One reason so many of our soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, anxiety, and depression is that they are in a constant state of hyperarousal.  They are not fighting on the old battlefields of World War II, when soldiers would engage the enemy on the front lines, then retreat to safety so that they could recover and restore themselves.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no clear battle lines, or it would be more accurate to say that they are always on the battle line because the enemy is anonymous and potentially around them at all times.  Therefore, they have to remain hypervigilant at all times.  Today's American worker has to remain on the job virtually at all times, thanks to our technology, and it is taking its toll on our health, our relationships, our families, and our communities.  We barely have time to care for ourselves, much less for anyone else.  When we encounter someone in need, we pass by on the other side on our hurried way to check off the next thing on our to-do list. 

        Gandhi advised, "Be the change you want to see in the world."  I'm not sure how successful any of us, even us Unitarians, can be at slowing down our frenetic society, but we can slow down our own lives.  Our Judeo-Christian heritage can help with the practice of Sabbath, which was originally a day of rest to honor God.  For those of us who have shed the notion of God, it can still be a day of rest to honor our own well-being.  Sabbath draws a clear line between work and personal life, the implication being that we are more than our jobs and the roles we play in life.  Sabbath reminds us that we are more than human "doings"; we are human beings.  Sabbath builds a fence around one day of the week to protect it from the demands of the work week.  Your Sabbath doesn't have to be the Jewish Saturday or the Christian Sunday, but an advantage of designating Sunday as your personal Sabbath is that you get to come here.  This congregation, and any other congregation for that matter, may be the only group left in our society where you don't have to earn your way in or prove yourself once you get in or produce anything in order to stay.  Congregations may raise money, have budgets, hire staff, and maintain facilities, but we are not a business.  Our purpose here is not to produce anything except one thing -- a community that respects the dignity and worth of every person.  Here, it is ok to be a human being.

        Sabbath can be practiced each day in addition to each week, even during the work day.  Most of us cannot work more than an hour or so without losing concentration anyway, so it pays to take a short break by closing your eyes for a few minutes, getting up from your desk and getting a glass of water, stretching, or stepping outside for a breath of fresh air.  I have also discovered that I feel less harried if, when I am working, I work in uninterrupted blocks of time when I need to focus.  I hit the mute button on my computer so I won't hear those new email pings, and I refrain from checking emails, texts, and phone messages during these blocks of concentration time and set aside another time for checking messages.  This allows me to do something novel -- I can actually think about what I'm doing and finish one thing before starting another.  My Grandfather Puckett would be proud.

        These days, I try to exercise each day for my physical health, even if just a 15-minute walk, and I also try to spend some uninterrupted time alone, even if just a few minutes, which is sometimes while I am walking, for my mental and psychological and -- dare I say -- spiritual health.  This is time just to reflect, ponder, and ruminate, not so much on things to do, but on what I am doing with my life.  This is easier said than done because we are almost continually surrounded by audio and visual stimulation in our society.  And when we're not, we almost always fill up the silence with noise or activity.  The fact is that many of us are not comfortable with silence, but we need to nurture our comfort with silence so that we can listen to ourselves.  Many of us are not comfortable with solitude, but we need to learn to enjoy our own company because we spend more time with ourselves than anyone else.  Plus, we can't be ourselves with others until we can be honest and genuine with ourselves.

        Like many of you, I receive many requests for my time.  Typically, I overcommit myself because I don’t say "no" enough.  But before I can say "no," I have to learn how to say "yes" -- yes to the things that matter to me, yes to the things I feel passionate about, yes to the things that give me a sense of fulfillment.  I learn what these things are when I spend time with myself in silence.

        Some of the things I value are spending time with people who are important to me, like you; and spending time enjoying some of life's simple pleasures, like sipping a cup of coffee while reading the paper; and spending time giving something back to life and doing my small part in leaving this world a little better than I found it.  The older I get, the more I value a simple life, with fewer things and fewer things to do, so that I can have more time doing what matters to me … including helping an elderly man push his car to the side of the road.  It really is a matter of priorities.


                                                                                                                                   Rev. Dr. Neal Jones