Living in a culture of instant gratification, many of us march to the mindset, “Gotta have it – and gotta have it now!” There are advantages to this; Walking into a fast-food restaurant and not having to wait; being able to quickly find virtually anything on the Internet; being able to communicate to others without delay, whether by phone, text or instant message.
But as with many advantages in life, instant living has drawbacks. One of them is the increasing inability to distinguish the urgent from the truly important.
Years ago, Charles E. Hummel wrote an engaging little booklet, The Tyranny of the Urgent. He stated, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” This seemed cryptic the first time I read it. Aren’t urgent things always important?
For instance, if you get a call from your boss instructing you to do something immediately, isn’t that important? If your smartphone rings during while you’re with loved ones or close friends, shouldn’t you check to see who’s calling?
As I pondered Hummel’s statement, however, I began to realize that indeed, urgent things are not always important – and important things aren’t always urgent. The challenge is learning to distinguish between the two, and then responding appropriately.
Another Hummel observation provided clarification: “There is an insidious tendency to neglect important tasks that do not have to be done today – or even this week.” At first glance this seems a tad confusing. If things don’t have to be done today, or this week, doesn’t that indicate they’re not all that important?
Once again, after a bit of thought, we start to understand what he meant. Sometimes urgent things also are important – if someone’s having a heart attack, they need immediate treatment. If there’s a fire, we must try to put it out. Or call 911. But if a friend asks us for a favor, that doesn’t mean we must drop everything to comply right then.
Many children’s trust has been shattered by promises repeatedly broken by parents because something “urgent” always seems to arise at the last minute. Or intended meetings with friends never happen because the “urgent” keeps snatching time from our schedules.
Having spent much of my working career reacting to deadlines, I know how easily the urgent can crowd out the important. Even now, I wrestle with the conflict between longer-term writing projects and more immediate, short-term tasks that “need” to be completed first.
In the Scriptures, we see an example of “urgent vs. important” in the lives of sisters Mary and Martha. The gospel of Luke gives a quick synopsis:
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’
‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-41).
At first glance, it’s easy to side with Martha. There’s a meal to prepare. Things to be done. Martha was slaving away, while her sister was “chilling,” listening to what Jesus had to say. But as He often did, Jesus was using this for a teachable moment. The preparations preoccupying Martha’s attention could wait a few minutes. Time with Jesus, however, was a priceless moment that couldn’t be recaptured later.
Seems to me this “tyranny of the urgent” impedes our ability to establish and maintain a close, intimate walk with God. Hummel also wrote about this in his booklet: “But the root of all sin is self-sufficiency – independence from the rule of God. When we fail to wait prayerfully for God’s guidance and strength, we are saying with our actions, if not with our words, that we do not need him. How much of our service is actually a ‘going it alone’?”
Psalm 37:7 admonishes, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.” This “resting” and “waiting” run counter to the instincts of our instant world, worshiping at the altar of the urgent. But if we’re to truly become all the Lord intends for us to be, we’ve got to discover how not to sacrifice the important on that altar.
Like Mary and Martha, we need to discern what’s really needed – the better of two or more options. Is it really important, or is it just urgent?
Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, former newspaper editor and magazine editor. Bob has written hundreds of magazine articles, and authored, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include the newly re-published, “Business At Its Best,” “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” He edits a weekly business meditation, “Monday Manna,” which is translated into more than 20 languages and distributed via email around the world by CBMC International. To read more of Bob Tamasy’s writings, you can visit his blog, www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com, or his website (now being completed), www.bobtamasy-readywriterink.com. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.