Too Busy to Be Good


A famous experiment in 1977 tested whether seminarians would
abandon their own principles when pressured by time.

Seminary students were on their way to give a presentation
on the parable of the Good Samaritan, when half of them were told they were running
late and must hurry. All the students (whether "late" or not) encountered
someone who was clearly in need of help, a man slumped and coughing in an alley
(in reality, an accomplice of the researchers). With nobody nearby, what will
the seminary students (who have been dwelling on the parable of the Good
Samaritan) do?  Most of those who thought
they were on time, do stop to help.

An alarming 90% of the seminarians who thought they were
running late failed to stop!

 Time pressure was the only difference.[1]

Researchers have since found that people who live in cities
with the fastest pace of life[2]
are also the least helpful-they are less likely to help a blind person cross
the street, for example, or even give change for a quarter.

For all of us (even those of us who don't live in Manhattan) the pace of
life is increasing. Technology has only exacerbated our time stress. Our cell
phones, Blackberries, computers, and unread emails clamor for our attention. We
eat more fast food and spend more hours in traffic than previous generations.
Heart disease, stroke, and stress-related illnesses abound. Chronic stress
reduces our overall health and sense of wellness, makes us susceptible to
disease, increases the likelihood of substance abuse, increases risk of heart
attack, and creates a host of other bad effects, both psychological and

We think multi-tasking might be the answer, so we try
squeezing our calls in while stuck in traffic. Or we eliminate vacation,
thinking we have no time for such frivolities. Worse, we may be tempted to cut
out the spiritual life or charitable works in favor of our personal to-do list.

Short of quitting our job and moving to a Greek island, is
there anything we can do to help restore balance–and serenity–to our lives?

  • Slow down and avoid multi-tasking. UCLA psychologists found
    that multi-tasking adversely affects how we learn. Participants in the
    study found that they performed much better on a task when they were not
    distracted.[3] Of
    course, you knew that! Nonetheless, we talk on the phone while doing the
    dishes, check emails while working on a paper, eat lunch at our desk, and
    apply make-up while driving-all in the name of boosting productivity!

Concentrate on the present moment, what
I am doing right now. So often we
miss the opportunity to help others because we, like the seminary students in
the research study, are so focused on getting somewhere else. We don't really
listen when the co-worker is telling us about her terrible day, because we are
thinking about how she is taking up our time. Or we look over the person's head
with whom we are talking at a party, to see who else is around. Or we avoid the
eye of the homeless man holding out his can, because we tell ourselves that he
will just spend it on booze anyway. We don't have time to attend daily Mass or
a Bible study, and we are "too busy" to join a parish ministry or to teach CCD.

  • Pray the Rosary. Pope Benedict XVI
    (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote in God and the World that praying
    the Rosary has a meditative, calming effect. In addition to its
    supernatural effects, it also offers us the "rhythm of tranquility." We
    don't even need to concentrate on every little word, he says, but can
    simply allow ourselves to be calmed and comforted by the repetition of the
    words, the rhythm of the prayer, and the images of Mary and Jesus in our
    souls. This prayerful experience "carries me and soothes me and fills my
    space," offering consolation and healing.[4]
  • Practice meditation. Meditation
    has many physical benefits, such as reducing stress and heart disease, but
    those who practice Christian meditation appreciate the spiritual benefits
    as well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church encourages us to meditate
    regularly ("lest we come to resemble the first three kinds of soil in the
    parable of the sower")[5]
    perhaps using the Scriptures or the Rosary as our starting point. If we
    meditate daily, we will undoubtedly experience dry spells, in which
    "nothing" seems to be happening (whether in the form of spiritual consolations
    or inspirations from the Holy Spirit), yet it is critical that we continue
    even during these times. As the Pope says, "it is important for the
    process of spiritual growth that you don't just pray…when it suits
    you…Faith also needs the discipline of the dry periods; then something
    grows in the silence. Just as in the winter fields, despite appearances, the
    growth lies hidden." [6]
  • Go on a weekend retreat. Christ
    said to his apostles, "Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and
    rest awhile" (Mk 6:31).
    There are many places that offer weekend spiritual retreats; for example,
    Spiritual Exercises in the Ignatian tradition are offered by the Legion of
    Christ and by Miles Christi. You can take an unstructured retreat with
    Cistercian (Trappist) monks, where you wake every morning to sound of
    chanting. If you have thirty days to follow in Saint Ignatius' footsteps,
    you can attend the thirty-day Spiritual Exercises at one of the several
    Jesuit Retreat houses in the United States. Everyone should
    consider setting aside one weekend dedicated to getting away from the rat
    race and spending time alone with the Lord–if not every year, then
    certainly prior to important life-changing events such as changing careers
    or getting married.
  • Spend time with friends.
    Psychologists have recently focused on the health benefits of having
    friends. Researchers at Duke
    discovered that coronary patients with fewer than four friends were more
    than twice as likely to die.[7]
    And, of course, our friendship with Christ is the most important
    relationship we can cultivate.

We might think we need to leave
society in favor of a deserted island, like a hermit, in order to experience
true peace and spiritual progress. Time alone with the Lord is vitally
important, but we are also a community. Our faith is cultivated, not in
isolation, but in community. As Pope Benedict writes, "It is always among us
that faith grown. Anybody who wants to go it alone has thus got it wrong from
the start." [8]

Whether meditating on Scriptures, praying the Rosary, going
on a weekend retreat, or spending some relaxed time with friends, slowing down
and taking time to appreciate the present moment will reap the benefit of
increased physical well being as well as a sense of spiritual balance and

Finally, don't abandon doing good for merely doing.
Pope Benedict tells us that-even if we think we have no time-we should be "on
the lookout to see where people need me in my own life." Pope Benedict may not
have known about the seminary experiment, but he knows human nature. He wrote
about the priest and the Levite who passed by the Samaritan in the parable:
"Each of them probably has an important appointment, or maybe they're afraid
something could happen to them if they stop for long…There's always a reason."
Nonetheless, he cautions us: "right there where I met someone in need is where
I must help, even if it doesn't suit, even if I have no time right then, or I
think I can't afford it." [9]


[1] Philip
Zimbardo, The Time Paradox. New
York: Free Press, 2008. Page 16.

[2] Pace of
life was determined by recording walking and speeds, the speed of basic
business transactions, and the frequency that watches are worn. Boston, New York, and
other northeastern cities were considered to be the fastest cities in America,
according to research by social psychologist Robert Levine, who has measured
the pace of life in cities around the world (Zimbardo, 16).

[3] University of California – Los Angeles (2006, July
26). Multi-tasking Adversely Affects Brain's Learning, UCLA Psychologists
Report. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 15, 2008, from­ /releases/2006/07/060726083302.htm

[4]Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World. San Francisco:
Ignatius Press, 2002. p. 319.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2707.

Ratzinger, op cit. page 321.

[7] Tom
Rath, Vital Friends. New York: Gallup Press, 2006. p. 25.

Ratzinger, op cit. page 321.

[9] Ibid page 315.



  1. Lisa-80639 September 18, 2008 Reply

    Ms. Bennett,
    Thank you for writing this.
    Learning to live in the present and appreciate God's simple gifts would go a long way toward breaking the vicious cycle of isolation, frenzied activity and more isolation.

  2. Cathy-365186 September 14, 2008 Reply

    When we turn our lives over to God, no matter how busy we get, we remember him. We can feel the Holy Spirit with us, even during stressfull times. Once I started having a deep relationship with Christ, I handle stress better, find myself in prayer often, grateful for all my blessings, noticing others around me and acting to assist more than before. For taking a moment or two to help our fellow man is showing our love for God. It is so true, that Our Father will let us know that is there, so long as we are open to His Love. It starts with the love of our fellow man. God Bless you all.

  3. Andrea-368415 September 6, 2008 Reply

    How true!

Post a comment