This article first appeared on Huffingtonpost.com.
When I was around 10 and living in Sri Lanka, a new Chinese ambassador was appointed to the country. I had the honor of meeting him on several occasions because his wife, who missed her own children back home, often invited us for family dinners. Seated at the large round dining table, I remember being fascinated not only by the rotating center of the table and the skewered sea horses (amongst other such delicacies) that circled around on it, but by the ambassador seated across from me.
He would have this kind and intent look on his face, as he listened attentively even though he did not understand what was being said. Until his translator unraveled the cryptic sentences to him, he listened solely with his heart and eyes. Over his two-year stay, the ambassador did learn some English. But he never did away with his translator. Listening closely, twice, gave him the time to think and respond in a way that he would not regret.
I was reminded of this today when my son came home, hugely proud of his performance at school. In a quiz, he had pressed the buzzer and responded before listening to the full question. The teacher had stoked his ego by naming him the math whiz of the class, even though the answer was factually incorrect, something the teacher failed to notice in his utter admiration of my son’s alacrity.
Infatuation with Speed
This infatuation with speed is a characteristic of our times. We live in the fastest phase of human history. The changes that took millennia in earlier times, and hundreds if not thousands of years in not too distant history, now happen in decades. Evolution has broken free from the bounds of biology, and culture continues to torpedo us into a speeding spiral that has changed our relationship with time.
We have fallen prey to what Larry Dossey in 1982 termed time-sickness: “the belief that time is getting away (…) and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up.” On this speeding treadmill, we have become hungry for information and fearful of missing out on it. So real is this fear that we’ve shorthanded it to FOMO. As we skim and graze, picking up one piece of entertaining information before moving onto the next in hasty bursts, we have become addicted to trivia.
This has a very real disadvantage in terms of our growth. We have neither the time nor the mental space to synthesize the information we gather and sustain it through deeper thought. Such information is lost on us, for unless we are able to chew on it and apply it to our lives and the important issues of our times, it does nothing more than feed a greed for having answers.
But taking time to think is not always easy. The ability to stay with the discomfort of life’s paradoxes and our own ignorance, and remain patient and still while questions and answers grow in never-ending cycles, requires a certain mental toughness that seems to be on its way out in a world in a hurry.
Speed is the new way of life. Although I grew up in an age where time unfolded like a cat easing itself into a post siesta posture, I find myself becoming increasingly impatient and anxious at the slightest delay or the smallest whiff of slowness. I find myself losing it when my little one’s stories trail past my brief attention span. I skip forward through even a three minute animation of a 300 page book.
If my own relationship with time can change over time, and affect my inner and outer worlds, what would the consequences be on our children who are growing up in an era where speed is the new intelligence? Where teachers reward quickness over correctness, where pundits pour out analyses as events unfold, where entire stock markets are lost or won in instant decisions.
I wonder whether they may become big-headed for their superficial knowledge. For real knowledge and authentic opinions have to be claimed by doing the work that not only opens us up to new perspectives, but also humbles us in the knowledge that we may never have an answer. This is a slow and painful process, and perhaps lost on a generation growing up in the cradle of ease and entertainment.
I wonder whether they may lose the ability to seek the stillness that connects them to who they are, and instead find themselves engulfed in the 21st century illness of boredom. For stillness can haunt us until we learn to listen to the activity within us including the interplay between our beauty and our beasts. Stillness can then allow us to live with opposing truths and rise to an inner wholeness.
I wonder whether the constant churn of trivia and their addiction to superficial information will keep young people from attending to the important issues of the day. Would the impatience and anxiety that speed entails diminish their gratitude and empathy? Would it keep them from connecting with others in a meaningful way? Will they float apart in self-centered bubbles of solitude and emptiness?
I may never know.
What do I know?
But what I do know is that the most significant achievements and the most enduring scientific discoveries and philosophical ideas of the past originated in the stillness of unburdened contemplation and of being one with the universe.
What I do know is that the life of the mind and the spirit lie in those periods of inactivity that today weigh on us as boredom.
What I do know is that moments of awe and wonder transpire in the quiet of a sunset and the hush of dawn.
What I do know is that we share the best in us in the oneness of silent conversation.
Speed certainly has its advantages. Few of us would like to live without the internet or air travel, or wait months for the reply to a mailed letter (although I do lament the lost art of letter writing, perhaps ae topic for another article). Nor would we like to waste time over the instinctive decisions that ensure our survival, or in groping for answers that simply require quick recall. But what good is the time we save if we are to fill it with more speed and busyness?
Our brains did not evolve to operate instinctively in the complex worlds we live in and the deep moral challenges we face on a continual basis. They need time to think over the choices we face and the consequences of our actions. Speed frees up that time, if we were to use it wisely. It is in slowing down that we connect to the deep recesses of our minds, to the wonder of simply being alive, and to the responsibility we carry towards those who share our lives.
For it is when we take time to think that our sense of time gets completely warped, speeding and slowing with the ebb and flow of dynamic changes in conditions, as we piece together the fragments of our lives and begin to see the pattern that allows meaning to emerge.