“When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself” (Milan Kundera).

Shortly before my visit to the Land of Cantons, I read about the adventures of a blogger who was on holiday in Switzerland with her family. On the last day of their holiday, at her husband’s insistence, but also because she didn’t want to miss the unique view of Mount Rigi, they bought three-day travel passes that allowed them to travel by train, bus, gondola, and any other means of transport.

The passes for all four members of the family were quite expensive, but the prospect of seeing the Alps in all their splendour made it an acceptable expense. On the day they boarded the Rigi train that would take them to the top of the Queen of the Mountains, they realised that they hadn’t just splashed out, they had wasted the money, and their hopes of seeing snow-capped peaks, azure lakes, and those green spring meadows were shattered. There was nothing to be seen beyond the window of the train, which was making its way up the mountain ridges: there was a thick fog, as if all the milk from the cows on the mountain pastures, turned into yoghurt, rolled down from the peaks to cover every nook and cranny of a fairytale landscape.

Caught up in the hallucinatory rush, modern man misses something far more important than the rapturous image of the Alps. Although there is so much to see, savour and share, we often only manage to catch glimpses of shadows, vague silhouettes or a yoghurt-like haze beyond the train window as it races through the few decades of our lives.

The lack of time and the haste that impoverishes us

“A poor life this if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare,” wrote the Welsh poet W.H. Davies.

We often think of time in terms of productivity, but how we use our time speaks to the freedom we do or don’t have, notes journalist and writer Catherine Blyth. Even if we equate lack of time with success, lack of time means we are poorer, and poverty of any kind means powerlessness.

After a lifetime of failing to slow down, the writer and TV presenter Joan Bakewell realised a few weeks after a hip operation how rushed everyone seems when you move slowly. She had suddenly become an obstacle to others, who pushed her impatiently or even irritably, eager to get to a place that was very important to them, judging by the eagerness with which they made their way to their unknown destination.

Have we become so hurried and overwhelmed with worry out of necessity, or is it simply our choice? Bakewell admits that in her case both are true. On the one hand, there are so many things to juggle—cooking, cleaning the house, shopping online or in shops, gardening, childcare, seeing family and friends, and work commitments. The list is long enough to make sleep feel like a real blessing.

On the other hand, the list of things we don’t have to do but want to tick off is also very long. In Bakewell’s case, it includes recipes she wants to try, rooms she wants to rearrange or places she wants to see. These are certainly choices, but like many people she often gets confused when it comes to distinguishing them from necessities.

Recalling the morning she tripped on the subway stairs because she was in such a hurry, the American writer Melissa Kirsch counts among the damages not only the scrapes and bruises she received, but also the added unpleasantness she brought to the morning of those she interacted with on her way to the subway station.

“We rush because we’re late. We also rush because we want to move quickly away from discomfort. We rush to come up with solutions to problems that would benefit from more sustained consideration. We rush into obligations or decisions or relationships because we want things settled,” Kirsch writes, noting the ridiculousness of treating life as simply a list of things to be resolved, not a list of things to be done. 

Because she often found herself wanting to move on to the next thing on the list, even when she was enjoying what she was doing, Kirsch says she learned to stop and ask herself where and why she was rushing. These are very good questions that the American poet Marie Howe also asks in one of her poems. As she rushes her little girl to keep up with her on a busy day of trips to the dry cleaner, the grocery store, the farmer’s market and the gas station, the author realises the pointlessness of her own hurry, which she passes on to her daughter: “Where do I want her to hurry? To her grave? / To mine?”

A slower pace, a better life—how to slow down

The obsession with going faster and faster has led us into an “age of rage,”[1] writes journalist Carl Honoré, author of a book about life under the tyranny of the stopwatch, noting the anger and irritation we display on the road, when shopping, in relationships or at work. We no longer tolerate interruptions and delays, and in this race where we can no longer take our foot off the accelerator, somehow we find that others have become obstacles to be overcome in order to make it in time.

Leafing through a newspaper at Rome airport, Honoré had an epiphany when he read about a project designed to shorten the time parents spend with their children before bedtime: classic fairy tales condensed into one-minute audio series. The idea of getting through five stories in just five minutes seemed too good to be true; this was at a time when his two-year-old son was asking for long stories, read at length, while he struggled to pick out the shortest stories he could get through as quickly as possible so he could move on to the next item on the agenda, be it work, dinner, a good book or the evening news. It wasn’t until he began to calculate how much time he would gain from the new series of fairy tales that he realised how distorted his view of life and the finer things in it had become, infected with this virus of haste that never seems to forgive anyone.

In fact, it’s this revelation of the effects of the frenetic pace of adult life on our children (more and more children and teenagers are ending up in psychologists’ offices with symptoms of depression and anxiety or with eating disorders) that is perhaps the best reason to slow down. After all, “all the things that bind us together and make life worth living—community, family, friendship—thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time.”[2]

There is no foolproof formula for slowing down, but each of us can seek the balance and pace that suits us, concludes Honoré, after examining several areas of life affected by this perpetual rush and coming to a predictable conclusion: often, slower is better—for our health, for our work, and for our family relationships.

Change begins with small steps. It can be choosing to eat slowly, in the company of someone, food made from ingredients we have at home, rather than wolfing down fast food in front of the computer. Or it could be choosing to enjoy a sunny morning instead of getting annoyed and harassing the driver in front of us. We could start by giving our full attention to someone in the family who is telling us something, rather than checking our phone alerts or mentally scrolling through the next day’s schedule.

What we’re looking for in this process of slowing down isn’t necessarily slowness, but a sense that we can handle the daily tasks and enjoy the good things in life, notes writer Tchiki Davis. Some of the suggestions Davis offers: taking deliberate breaks, reducing time spent on the phone, journaling (a useful technique to “help our brains switch gears”), or getting out into nature.

Embracing simplicity and minimalism, saying no to plans and activities we don’t really need, focusing on present experiences rather than letting them slip into the future or the past, or cultivating joy and gratitude for the good things in life are other ways to escape the rush.

The time we give to others is time we give to ourselves

Lack of time can cause us to act against the beliefs and principles we hold (or at least hold at a declarative level), as shown by a famous experiment conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1970. While looking for a building on campus in which to give a talk (some on the parable of the Good Samaritan they had just read, others on a neutral topic), the students came across a person slumped by the side of the road, moaning. The “victim” was part of the research team, but the students did not know this.

Most of the seminarians did not help the fallen person because they were in a hurry to get to the place where they were going to present their paper. The results disproved the researchers’ hypothesis that students who had just read the parable of the Good Samaritan would be more likely to help. In fact, most of them either ignored the needy man, didn’t ask him what had happened, or stopped at his side for a moment without actually helping. The only factor that made a difference was time. While some of the subjects thought they had enough time to get to the conference, others were warned to hurry because they would be late. In the end, two thirds of the students who thought they had time and only 10% of those who thought they were late stopped to help the victim.

If the perception of a lack of time has made those most likely to do good insensitive to an obvious need (and more than half a century ago, in a world that seemed to be moving rather slowly), what hope can we have?

In attempting to answer this question, physician Gabriella Rosen Kellerman suggests that the problem lies in how our brains perceive time—it becomes a determining factor in whether we stop (or not) to meet the needs of those around us. Often it’s not so much the objective lack of time as our subjective perception of it, Kellerman writes, explaining that the call to hurry triggers a certain script in our minds that compels us to increase our speed and ignore anything that would distract us from our goal.

People who are generous with their time experience an abundance of time

When we’re pressed for time, we’re even less likely to help others, but that may be just the solution, according to a 2010 study. Researchers found that people who are generous with their time experience a feeling of time abundance. And because they also feel more efficient, those who give time away are more likely to spend time with others despite their busy schedules.

This is really good news for those who complain that they have lost control of their time and are too exhausted to invest in relationships with others. Time is not money, nor is it the ambition to break all the speed records. It is the life that has been placed in our hands which carries the promise of eternity—and through it we touch the lives of those who God has placed among us.

Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.

[1]“Carl Honoré, ‘In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed’, Orion, 2005 p. 32.”
[2]“Ibidem, p. 27.”

“Carl Honoré, ‘In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed’, Orion, 2005 p. 32.”
“Ibidem, p. 27.”