The Importance and Proper Use of Words: Urgency vs. Importance

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This is my 9th of 10 columns on the importance and proper use of words. 

When I was a newlywed and young youth director, a wise associate pastor gave our church this admonishment: “Never let the urgent things in life usurp the important.” Although he only preached occasionally, the words of Tom Steller resound with me to this day.

So how does one differentiate between what is “urgent” and what is “important”? I propose that urgent things are constant and ubiquitous: daily responsibilities, texts, emails, phone calls, appointments, chores, homework, jobs, etc. Important things are more transcendent: things that last beyond the short-term. Priorities of import may seem like “still, small voices” in our lives but nonetheless ultimately deserve the lion’s share of our hearts’ attention, even amidst the inevitable urgencies that require more quantity of time most days.

Way back in my 30’s, I read two books that changed my life in this regard: Margin by Richard Swenson and A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. In the former, Swenson, a medical doctor by training and former practice, diagnoses our problem (especially in America) by what he calls “the Overload Syndrome.” We’re often simply too busy to focus on important things. His prescription is to create intentional “margin” in every area of life, all toward the goal of balance. He warns, “Our rush toward excellence in one quadrant of life must not be permitted to cause destruction in another.” Swenson teaches that balance is a more noble goal than hyper-focused excellence (which always leads to “negative excellence” elsewhere), and he challenges the reader to consider how to balance the major categories of life even if more ego-feeding or tangible achievements suffer. In other words, Swenson essentially challenges us to choose the important over the urgent.

Sittser’s book is of an even more sober nature, dealing squarely with devastating grief due to loss of all kinds, from the loss of human life to the loss of relationships, health, or dreams. He writes that when we experience a major loss, especially a death, time stops: “We live life as if it were a motion picture. Loss turns it into a spapshot.” Suddenly, often with no warning, what we thought were such urgent and often time-wasting pursuits (e.g., immersing in daily screen time) seem insignificant. We grieve, we contemplate our own mortality, and we’re forced to change priorities. Those of us observing others’ trials would be wise to grieve with those who grieve. Solomon wrote, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2, ESV). Laying to heart life’s end is important.

This month especially celebrates giving thanks. My goal is to renew my efforts to create and steward margin, focusing on the important things and living a lifestyle more free from the bondage of urgency. Even an hour a day (a few minutes at a time) may be all we can muster for the important. But a little goes a long way.