The Tyranny of the Urgent

There are different ways of relating to the telephone.  Some people always rush to answer.  Some have a look at the caller’s number before deciding whether to answer.  Others seem to avoid answering at all.  My own practice is a fourth variation: if I am with someone else (and that includes certain precious moments with my family like mealtimes), I let the answerphone pick up the call and then ring back.  My basic position is that the people I am with deserve my fullest attention and if I were to answer the phone, I would be, to some degree, sending a message to them that they are less important than the unknown caller on the end of the line.  What’s more, when I do call someone back, I try to do so when I have time to listen to them, so I can give them the attention and time they deserve without my being distracted by other matters.  I recognise this is not a perfect system – after all, a caller might be in great need (though rarely, in my experience), or the most convenient time for me to call back might not be ideal for them.  But this is what I do.

I tell you this because it serves as a good example of how we all react differently to the different demands made on us by “the urgent” and “the important”.  The phone may make a ringing noise, but there is a sense in which it is really shouting, “Answer me!  Answer me now!  Don’t ignore me!”  Even if it rings off, we are left with a nagging question in our minds: “Who was that?  I wonder what they wanted.”  Phones demand our attention like screaming children.  In many cases, there’s nothing really important behind the calls we receive – certainly nothing that wouldn’t wait – but everything about the technology pleads urgency.  Telephones show us the dynamics of the challenge we all face to concentrate on the important things of life in the midst of those things which jostle for our urgent attention.

Consider that moment when we’ve made plans but answer a call which then turns out to be more complicated than we might have anticipated.  It would be rude to curtail the call, and we really want to find a resolution to the matter in hand, so we pursue it as best we can for as long as we feel able, with the result that we then have to rush to make our appointment or train.  It is so easy to allow immediate and short-term matters, rather like black holes, to suck us in so that we become preoccupied with the minutiae of a particular set of circumstances at the expense of a carefully considered plan or holistic overview of life.

The most serious expression of this is the way we so often focus on our “three-score-years-and-ten” and forget eternity.  This manifests itself in various ways.  For example, we get cross when wicked people apparently get away with their evil (because we have forgotten that God will exercise justice in eternity).  We fret about staying alive for as long as we can and we spend our money on making ourselves and our loved ones happy in this earthly existence but we pay no attention to what will guarantee deep and eternal joy.  The Apostle Paul told the Christians in Colossae, “Set your minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God… not on things that are on the earth.”  This is good advice for us all.  Our immediate concerns, like phone-calls, do matter but God freely offers us so much more in Jesus.  Let us pause, look up and trust his eternal promises.

May God grant you rest from the urgent so you may act on what is truly important.