Are You a Hamster?


Douglas Groothuis strides to the plate (in his recent post, “Against Multi-tasking”) and takes a mighty swing at an issue I’ve blogged about more times than I care to admit. Noting that our society is like a videotape stuck on fast forward play, with people favoring inhuman virtual worlds they can easily manipulate at a press of a button, he says:

Reality demands an attentiveness that multi-tasking does not allow. Human beings especially tend to be opaque and mysterious beings, whose inner recesses are not easily discerned. We can push a key and make the computer or cell phone do something. We cannot push a key and understand or help change a human being. That kind of being requires more attention, more patience, more suffering. This is because we are made in God’s image and likeness, yet we are fallen and disoriented by sin’s manifold manifestations. We are sinners in need or reorientation according to truth (that which describes reality). Some of the most important truths about ourselves and others and about God himself are not easily fathomed—or when fathomed, they are not easily remembered. The discerning of these truths requires attentiveness, patience, and studiousness. These truths demand, as Pascal noted, being quiet in our own room without distractions or diversions. Conversations concerned about truth and virtue require the engagement of two people who are attending, respecting, and responding to one another without mediation.

Dead. Spot. On. Here’s his summation:

If all this is true and important, several things follow. We need to slow down and become less efficient and effective, at least as these terms are defined by popular culture. We need to unplug more often, endeavoring do just one thing at a time and to do one thing at a time well. Perhaps we should simply listen to music in order to discern its nature, structure, and aesthetic value. This requires a one-pointed immersion into its sonic reality. Just listen and think. Maybe we should simply listen to another person, laboring to exegete his or her soul and bring our soul to bear on another’s pain, yearnings, and boredom. Perhaps we should read the Bible in book form and not jump from text to text to image to image as we do while “reading” it in cyberspace. (Is that really reading or merely retinizing?) Maybe we need to talk to someone on the phone and not listen to music while talking, not type an email while listening, not exercise while listening. Maybe much should change—within and without. Much should change if we think truth is being lost, relationships are being cheapened, and virtues are being soiled by our incessant dividedness, fragmentation, and alienation known as “multi-tasking.”

And…there’s the whiff.

Great stance. Fluid form. Eye on the ball. But it’s a “K” nonetheless.

I know Groothuis is blogging and it’s not a doctoral dissertation on the subject, but the Church has got to provide better answers. Groothuis has a stellar mind and I’d love for someone in his position to develop this more in the company of other great Christian thinkers and leaders. For all our sakes, it must be developed more than telling us to unplug from our devices and stop multi-tasking.

Take the average person who…

  • Gets up at 5 AM for work, showers, gets dressed
  • Eats a quick breakfast
  • Reads the Bible for a few minutes and tries to fit in a couple minutes of prayer
  • Commutes forty-five minutes to work through snarled traffic
  • Starts work at 7:30 AM
  • Skips lunch or eats quickly in the cubicle
  • Bails from work ten hours after starting
  • Drives forty-five minutes home through snarled traffic
  • Changes clothes
  • Sits down to eat dinner at around 7 PM
  • Manages to play a couple minutes with the kids
  • Helps put the kids to bed
  • Manages about fifteen minutes alone doing something personally worthwhile
  • Squeezes in a few minutes of talk and possibly a prayer with the spouse
  • Gets ready for bed
  • Hits the hay at 10 PM
  • Repeats

That’s now the existence for a huge number of people in the United States. Given that, I must ask when we find the time for the “single-tasking” Groothuis insists we need?

That schedule I just listed is what needs to be fixed. Church leaders wonder why folks won’t commit to more volunteer activities. Businessman on a Hamster WheelI’ve got to ask if any of the leaders in the Church today understand that kind of schedule and its ubiquitousness. If they do, and they hate it as much as the people stuck in it, then why is the Church in America not doing a single thing to reform that kind of schedule?

Honestly, the disconnect blows my mind. To his credit, Groothuis nails the problem beautifully. But when we start decrying the lack of singlemindedness to deconstruct the finer points of a Beethoven sonata while simultaneously asking people to work the kind of schedule most do, I’ve got to wonder, Did we just step off the planet?

This evening, my wife and I collapsed on our couch and talked for five minutes about the truth that people are exhausted when they end their day, but not in the good way that comes from physical labor, the kind that is capped by a sweet rush of endorphins and peace in the nerves. No, the exhuastion that afflicts us today is stress-induced, the kind that blurs all thoughts and makes pushing a button the sum total of all we can muster before we slump into bed to worry about the next day, fitfully tossing and turning as the digits flicker by in rapid succession on the nightstand alarm clock.

Today’s Christians can’t start talking about depth of meaning and greater purpose if at the very core of what we do each day there’s nothing but a treadmill stuck on the “Verge of Insanity” setting. Talking on the phone while we read our e-mail is a symptom of a greater problem because choosing to talk on the phone now, followed by reading the e-mail later, simply isn’t an option for a lot of people. We’ve got to fix the hectic madness we must obey or else risk a trampling by the mad rush of the rest of the world.

Who is speaking to the greater whole of our daily scheduled existence? Who is bold enough to provide viable solutions for getting at the root of our modern work lives that command such extreme chronological attention? Will our pastor be the one to explain to our bosses why we refuse to carry a corporate-mandated cellphone guaranteed to ring at least a half dozen times each weekend (and at least twice during each evening?)

It’s time to stop talking in theoreticals. And no more Band-Aids for severed limbs, either.

I would issue this challenge to Douglas Groothuis, a much smarter man than I am: How can Christians find a more Christ-honoring means of practical living than the system we have now in place—the one that is killing us, wrecking our families, and destroying our churches? How do we step out of society’s hamster wheel? Why is the Church in America not speaking to this? Why are there no answers other than the simpleminded ones we repeatedly offer but which continually fail to fix this issue?

If people are not living the abundant life because of the system of living we have created, then for the sake of the Kingdom of God we better find a way to beat the system.

Now, where do we start?

25 thoughts on “Are You a Hamster?

  1. jared

    Dan, go to bed!

    Seriously, though, you’re asking a great question, and it’s one many of us are asking ourselves, even if we’re not aware of it.

    This specific subject aside, I tire of touring the blogosphere and finding lots of criticism and whining about what’s wrong, and most of it correct about what is wrong, but nobody saying how to fix it.

    Personally, while the lifestyle is killing us, I’m not convinced all that many people are trying to squeeze in quiet times and prayer. If the surveys are anywhere close to correct, Americans have lots of free time with which to watch television.
    Maybe it is a matter of priorities, but only if the churches will stop affirming the world’s values of “efficiency” and pragmatism and self-importance and go back to championing the basic spiritual disciplines: prayer, Bible study, etc etc. And our theology is out of whack too (when we bother with it).

    This is sort of what I was getting at with my comments in your “5 Things Wrong” post. I’d like to see the Church go back to the primary, basic stuff of discipleship. Those are the steps of obedience and affection for God. The rest is application, I think.

    I’m rambling, so I’ll stop.
    You point out a real problem; you also point out the problem with the most commonly proffered solutions.
    So I ask you: Where do we start?

    (But if it’s something about starting a farm, never mind. 😉

  2. Dan,
    I read your post amidst my morning routine and thought about it over breakfast. Some scriptures came to mind:
    Proverbs 11:1—A balanced life
    Ecclesiates 5:18—the joy of labor
    Isaiah 30:15—the importance of soul time with God
    Isaiah 26:3 Trusting in God brings peace

    Is the schedule the real issue? Is not God the ultimate multi-tasker? Or, are we just unbalanced stewards who lack the capacity to manage a highly productive environment?

    Maybe its not so much the scheduled time, but what we are doing with our non-scheduled time.

    As I go to work this morning, I’ll thank God that I only have a 5 minute commute.

  3. Dan: “Will our pastor be the one to explain to our bosses why we refuse to…”

    Hey, Dan. Haven’t you heard? The Business of America is Business! And Businesses demand efficiency, efficiency, and ever more efficiency, big-box, just-in-time, warehouse-on-wheels efficiency. And if we’re not doing twenty-five things at once, well, there’re these newfangled outfits in India or China who’ll do the job, and more, for just pennies per day. So we all had better snap to, if you know what I mean. And to make sure we’re ever more efficient, we’ve got all sorts of techno-whiz-bang thinggies jammed in our ears and up our noses. And come to think of it, pastors themselves are trying to find new ways to make things ever more efficient.

    Gosh, Dan, you are sounding downright Un-American.

  4. Susan

    Each person on the “treadmill” needs to make the choice to step off. It can be done. It is costly, in worldly terms. We are driven by fear of the answer to the question “But what if I stop_________” and so we continue to do all the things that fill in that blank.

    I do not mulititask. It is not how I’m put together. It isn’t even an option for me; and I suffer for it in our society. I don’t “fit in,” don’t get (or keep) the higher paying jobs, and don’t keep up with people around me. It is costly financially and socially. One would think a single-track life would mean more and richer friendships, but alas, most people are going too fast and in too many directions to stop and do just one thing at a time like sit and talk face to face without the interruption of electronic devices.

    If the church is to survive as a true community, we need to intentionally put our cell phones down, log off the computer, and do more sitting around warm wood-hewn tables with hot drinks… and stay a while…at the expense of worldly “productivity.” Most right now are simply not willing to pay that price.

    I dont know how much more practical it can get than that.

  5. halfpastjack,
    God may be the ultimate multitasker, but I don’t think he made people that way. Last time I looked in the mirror, I wasn’t God.

    Yes, be glad that you have a 5 minute commute. Not only is the workday getting longer, but so is most people’s commute.

    Right on the nose, buddy!

    You are right that it will be costly, but the problem is that there is little support now for anyone who wants to take the chance and pay the price. It’s one thing to jump off the cliff into the river below, but quite another if there’s no river!

    The problem I see though is that the refuges we thought would work didn’t. A lot of people thought life would be easier if we were able to work from home rather than go into the office. That was until the people realized that when corporate downsizing came, it was the people working outside the office—who had no political support in the office because they were never there— who were the first people pink slipped.

    I believe the median household income in my area—not a rich one or with a high cost of living—is $65,000. Most jobs in that salary range will be requiring a 50 hour work week and some commute if you want a single wage-earner household, the standard held out to us by most Evangelical churches. Yes, you can step off the treadmill, but now you’ve got TWO people working $32,000 a year jobs instead. How has that helped the problem?

  6. CJR

    Dan –

    There is a caution you offer that I agree with – the idea that we need to be “fully engaged” with the reality and the moment we are in – not off somewhere in the near or distant future thinking of the following or upcomings tasks or challenges.

    But I push back on the critique you make of modern society in general. On what basis do you assume that the work we do today is somehow less valuable or “legimate” than the physical labor of the organic farmer or the lumberjack?

    There seems to be a growing confusion in much of modern evangelicalism between the value of work and the content of work. That is, that certain kinds of work are inherently more spiritual or redemptive than others. Specifically, working with one’s hands seems to hold more idealistic value for some than working with one’s mind.

    Perhaps this has some basis in the recent fad to “simplify”.

    Let me say that busyness is a problem – a disease and distraction that keeps us from God. But this is not only not tied to the kind of work we do (as I, like Tozer, would argue that the worker redeems and defines the eternal quality of the work – not the other way round), it is not a modern phenomenon at all.

    The societal decay (for those who hold such a decay is occurring) cannot be tied to the invention of the Internet or of television or of PDAs and PCs, can it? Haven’t we seen civilizations throughout history rise and fall because of human greed, human selfishness and human hubris? And haven’t these propensities played out in agrarian societies just as viciously and destructively as the modern examples we might point to in technologically advanced societies?

    Isn’t the temptation to be “removed from” the moment and “distant from” the reality we are in based in the human drive to control, manipulate and possess – not in the availability of technology? And don’t these tendencies play out just as “effectively” in non-technological societies as in technologically advanced ones?

    I guess I’m simply saying that the social mechanisms seem to be neither here-nor-there in terms of the final spiritual condition of the society’s citizenry.

  7. CJR

    Susan wrote:

    If the church is to survive as a true community, we need to intentionally put our cell phones down, log off the computer, and do more sitting around warm wood-hewn tables with hot drinks… and stay a while…at the expense of worldly “productivity.” Most right now are simply not willing to pay that price.

    While this sounds great, where is the factual basis that “leisure time” as Susan describes results in some greater capacity for spirituality or Christian discipleship?

    How do you think the vast majority of people (I’m talking about 99% or more) spent their lives before the 20th century? How much leisure time did they have? How many “weekends off” or “vacations” were they given?

    Sure, their commutes were shorter – because they never left work! They worked 12-14 hours each day and did that 6 days a week. No trips to the park with their kids, no long weekends at the beach, no talking to family they were separated from, no spiritual retreats or workshops or seminars.

    You guys are really judging a specific group of people with a specific problem in a specific subset of Western culture against an unrealistic view of history.

    50 hour work-weeks are short, short, short when compared to how practically every person in every society has ever lived up until Western civilization in the early 20th century.

  8. jpu

    i think the church needs to encourage the quiet, inexpensive, counter cultural life . see my blog for a little more development. 1 Thess 4:11
    God is good

  9. Robert

    It’s not that difficult to find a meaningful balance in life. It’s a matter of making effective choices. For instance, I’ve just spent 45 minutes at my desk reading inspirational blogs while eating a sandwich instead of joining my coworkers in a mad rush to a local restaurant. My afternoon work will benefit from this time of reflection. Our family prepares dinner together and eats together at a table. We have the whole of an hour to engage one another. Most of what we do can be arranged to allow a true balance, if we only try. It’s a matter of making effective choices.

  10. CJR

    Robert is correct, in my estimation. This is not about “rejecting the modern lifestyle” regarding our work life, but is about being deliberate in our choices – making these choices with a clear understanding of the the consequences.

    I, personally, find my “exhaustion” at the end of a busy day to be rewarding when I have begun my day early with my kids, worked diligently during the day – seeking to find the “center” of the tasks before me, returned home to eat with my family and discuss our activities from the day, and submitting myself to God’s care in rest for the night.

    The fact that I use a cellphone, email, PC, PDA at home and in the office neither detracts from nor increases the level of joy or value I find in these experiences.

    Some people abuse themselves with their work practices – having no limits or boundaries – as others abuse themselves with their hobbies and indulgences. This isn’t a basis for prohibition on remote work locations anymore than people becoming obsessed with major league baseball is a basis for banning spectator sports.

  11. Dan,
    Great exactly. I preach that the #1 gift to discipleship is …..the cell phone. Just yessterday. I drove in my car about 4 hours (I live in LA), I worked 10 hours, I went to school for 2 hours, I coached a young man for 2 hours. Where can I find time to follow up on how are you doing with my wife and a few co-conspirators…the cell phone.

    I love LA. I am going to track back..Great post

  12. Daniel Nairn

    Thanks for the thoughts. I just discovered your blog the other day, and posts like this will keep me coming back on a regular basis.

    I agree that the busyness and complexity of modern life has great spiritual costs, but I wonder if the line of demarcation is really between multi/single tasking or something else. Lately my fiancee has been reminding me of the differences between men and women. Every time I burn something on the stove because I’ve wandered away to do something else and forgotten about it, or if I become so focused in a conversation that I have a hard time changing the subject, she lets me know how awful I am at multi-tasking – and that this is not uncommon. Men are more likely to passionately dive into one goal, while women seem better equipped to keep several goals in mind at once. To identify this (predominantly) female characteristic with the general chaos of modern life might be a little unfair. I’d say that the lawyer who stays up for days in a row, agonizing over a single case, is just as much susceptable to losing sight of life’s priorities.

  13. Anonymous

    You say We’ve got to fix the hectic madness we must obey or else risk a trampling by the mad rush of the rest of the world.

    Who is speaking to the greater whole of our daily scheduled existence? Who is bold enough to provide viable solutions for getting at the root of our modern work lives that command such extreme chronological attention? Will our pastor be the one to explain to our bosses why we refuse to carry a corporate-mandated cellphone guaranteed to ring at least a half dozen times each weekend (and at least twice during each evening?)

    But that’s exactly Groothuis’ point! Jesus never ONCE said we had to conform to the world. As a matter of fact… he said just the opposite! And Paul said it again! And John said it again!

    John 17:14-18: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.”

    Romans 12:2 “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

    1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

    I don’t read ANYWHERE in the book that we are to blindly accept the way the world walks and just be Christian inside ourselves. Instead, I read that we are to EXEMPLIFY the faith, remaining firm and steadfast.

    If you let your time with your wife and children be interrupted by your “boss” or the CELL PHONE or your JOB – guess what – Christ is no longer your REAL BOSS, and you’re obeying the demands of MEN. You are no longer acting like a Christian. “Who shall we obey? God or men?”

    In other words, Dan – you missed Doug’s point completely. Doug is asking, “Are you committed to Christ or aren’t you?” And you’re whining, “But you’re not showing me how I can have one foot on the path to hell and the other on the path to heaven…”

    When it’s plain as day in the Scriptures that you CAN’T do that. You cannot obey both God and Mammon.

    SCREW the world. It’s not worth keeping up with, because it’s on its way down the broad and wide road to hell.

    Step off the merry-go-round. To hell with the consequences. Yeah, it’s SCARY. But, if you deny Christ’s name before men, Christ will deny you before God. That’s in the scriptures. What is it you stand for? God, or Mammon? CHOOSE!

    What would happen if Christians stopped worshipping their stuff and started worshipping God instead?

    Who do you serve? God or Mammon? Because Groothuis is asking you to CHOOSE. How is your stressed-out life serving God? How is your stressed-out WIFE serving God? Can each of you serve God better by stepping off the world’s merry-go-round? Oh, your tithes would drop? God can make ROCKS turn into money for the church; God does not need your tithes. Your income would drop? Which is worth more, your health or your wealth? Which is worth more, Christ or Grist? Who shall you obey, a human boss or God?

    The answer is NOT to try to keep one foot on the path to hell and the other on the path to heaven. The answer, as Groothuis is saying, is to IGNORE what’s “Practical” – wise according to the world – and OBEY what’s “Prayerful” – wise according to God. And, yes, that scares people. I have no doubt at all that this post will be attacked left, right, and center. All that will show is who wants to keep worshipping Mammon and still claim to be Christian. Sorry, folks; “He who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.”

    Shall we follow Christ, or shall we follow men?

    Who do you serve?

  14. Anonymous

    Your column and responders are filthy rich and think $65,000 per year isn’t rich?? Try living like me and my friends making $19,000 or less. There are second jobs at Wally World and government subsidies or you go cold. The jobs are filthy and the rent is high.

    I sure you guys are good people but you don’t know reality.I know what it is to be dependent on God and simple things like warm house and a car with heat is something to be thankful for.

  15. Susan


    I know you mean well, but the capacity for multi-tasking has nothing to do with being feminine nor is it a hormonally-induced characteristic. I work with plenty of men who I observe are very capable of keeping up with several goals at once in the workplace and could likely do it in the home (and perhaps do). I am definitely a single-task individual who needs to follow one course of action at a time, and I am definitely a female. I make a horrible cook (unless it is a very simple or one-dish meal!) and find it very difficult to do things like drive and talk on the cell phone at the same time (safely)or listen to music and read (something I’ve always been amazed that anyone can do) or juggle several projects at a time at work. Categorizing these characteristics into “female” and “male” categories makes for less than helpful prejudices in the long run. Were people in the workplace to look at me and assume that because I am a woman I “should be” able to multi-task, it sure would sting!

  16. Carla


    I read your schedule of the average person who wakes at 5am, and I honestly felt anxious for the person, just by reading it. Isn’t that odd?

    I’m a mother who stays at home. My schedule is so flexible it’s almost comical – so I don’t know that life.

    But my husband does. He works 12 hour shifts, on a continental shift (which means a rotating schedule of 2 days on, 2 days off, then 3 days on, 3 days off – it’s a bizarre schedule, to say the least).

    On the days he works, he gets up at 4:30, and by 5:45 he’s out of the house to make the commute to be clocked in by 7am. He gets off at 7pm and arrives home just in time for family devotions, and tucking the kids into bed.

    He works every other weekend, and with only 1 car, as a family we miss church every other week, and we also miss mid-week church functions, every other week. It’s a rough schedule, and it prohibits us from being as involved in our local church, as we’d all like to be.

    On the upside to this – we really cannot complain (as much as we’d all like to). God has provided him with this job, enabling me to stay home with the kids, and to homeschool. It would be nearly impossible for us to have this kind of a life, if he were working any other kind of a job.

    On his days off, during the week, he’s the teacher and I’m the errand runner.

    We live in farm country, and for most of the people where we live, my husband’s schedule is light.

    Would we all like it more if there was another way? Sure, it’d be great. But for us, there isn’t, so we are simply thankful for what we do have, and make the best of it, as much as we are able.

    Just thought I’d share another perspective.

    SDG ~ Carla

  17. Alexander M Jordan

    Hi Dan:

    I just discovered your blog and have added it to my blog links, very good stuff!

    I was inspired by this post, as well as Mr. Groothius’ post and one by another blogger, CJR of “runtowin”, to write my own take about this topic.

    I recently returned from the GodBlogCon so I’ve been thinking a lot about the purposes of Christian blogging— which is really just an extension of our lives as Christians.

    If you have an opportunity, check out my post titled, Led by a Pure Heart, or Driven by Idols? I think my main idea is that if we are allowing our hearts to become purified in relationship with God, then we will likely use the technologies that modernity offers in a right way, rather than be driven to distraction by them.

  18. Ronni

    Well, quite honestly I know about 300 people that do this. JPUSA. Jesus People USA and those people who are members of the 12 tribes. They are both Communes. I know… run and hide.. but I envy them all for their lifestyle. I had the honor of living at JPUSA for a few months… everyone is a big family, sharing duties, and SACRIFICING personal choice on many matters for the good of all. They work as a big team. Personal space isn’t lavish, but adequate. Servanthood is preached and lived instead of consumerism. They let their neighbors help raise their kids, and the kids thrive for it.

    I would LOVE to share my home with another family. I have two bedrooms that are essentially empty. Yeah it would be crowded according to today standards, and sacrifices would have to be made, but costs would go down per family, so less stressful jobs could be taken. There would always be someone home for the kids, and instead of having the newest mind numbing game out there for each child, they would have to learn tolerance, and sharing and how to wait for a bathroom. Sounds ideal to me. Anyone want to move in? *G*

  19. Pingback: Cerulean Sanctum » I’m Back!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *