Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Urgent v The Important

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal a Fractured World talks about how we think of ourselves and of others, and he explains it like this. He says that one of the most daunting things he faced when he first became a rabbi was the conduct of funerals. Often he would not have known the person that he was faced with having to say something about. And so, he would talk to family and friends to begin to build up, at least, a small picture. And he describes how he quickly began to discern a pattern in the replies he received. “Usually they would say that the deceased had been a supportive husband or wife, a loving parent, a loyal friend. They spoke about the good they had done to others, often quietly, discreetly, without ostentation. When you needed them, they were there. They shouldered their responsibilities to the community. They gave to charitable causes and, if they could not give money, they gave time.” He further comments: “Those most mourned and missed were not the most successful, rich or famous. They were the people who enhanced the lives of others. These were the people who were loved.” Sacks then goes on to make a very interesting and, I think, significant comment about how this distinguished for him “the crucial difference between the urgent and the important. He goes on to comment, and I think this says a lot, “No one ever spoke, in praise of someone who had died, about the car they drove, the house they owned, the clothes they wore, the exotic holidays they took. No one's last thought was ever, 'I wish I had spent more time in the office.' And he goes on to say, and these are two very important sentences for me - “The things we spend most of our time pursuing turn out to be curiously irrelevant when it comes to seeing the value of our life as a whole. They are urgent but not important, and in crush and press of daily life, the urgent tends to win out over the important.”

I have to say that I think Sacks is spot on here and I find this distinction between the urgent and the important very helpful. We do spend our lives running round doing things that we certainly treat as though they are urgent. We live in a society and a culture that is always hurrying. We define each other by what we do. What's the question we most often ask first of someone whom we have just met: what do you do? Our occupation is what defines us. And there are all sorts of other ways in which we rush around after things that are nice and, yes, certainly, can be enjoyed. But these are the urgent things, and that's how we treat them. And that, actually, is fine, so far as it goes, except for the risk that it may well contribute to our neglect of the important.

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