Wednesday, October 23, 2002

by William Severini Kowinski

From the Pony Express to the expressway, America has always loved speed. We invented a culture based on the efficiency of the assembly line and time-saving technology, on rapid promotion and upward mobility, the can-do and the quick fix, hot jazz and hard rock, instant coffee and instantaneous communications, the quarterly report and doing better than dad; on fast cars on fast highways making fast deliveries of the newest products, promising quick results and fast relief for those on the fast track. Among our icons are Speedy Alka Seltzer, Quick Draw McGraw, Fast Eddie, and a number of fast women.

But now we're not so sure. America looks increasingly like the land of the frazzled and the home of the frayed. What was once America's pride is becoming a cause of collapse. It's crept up on us unconsciously but now in one way or another we're saying it out loud: We're worried about the speed of life.

Some years back, in the early 1990s (does anybody remember?) we made a book called The Overworked American a best seller. Its author, Harvard economist Juliet Schor, contends Americans in every income category are working much longer hours than forty years ago. Even the rapidly diminishing number of women who stay home put in more time doing housework, despite their "labor-saving" devices.

From the ups and downs of the economy through the 1980s and 90s until today's uncertain economy, one thing remains consistent: many people are either working longer hours in the hopes of keeping their jobs or businesses, or putting in frenzied unpaid hours looking for work, while spending a month once a week coping with the stolidly maddening bureaucracy of the unemployment office.

The impact of so many hours spent wrapped up in scrapping for sustenance sends out devastating ripples through private life and society. More and more must be done in less and less time, leading to stress-related health problems, and contributing to alcoholism, prescription and illegal drug use, child and spouse abuse and neglect, suicide, and accidents on the job and on the highway caused by the sleepy and the wired.

But it's more than overwork. The speed of life involves many other factors, such as technology, values and the subjective experience of time in this paradoxical society where people wait impatiently for their instant dinner to emerge from the microwave oven.

We experience the speed of life as too many things happening too fast. It's split focus, divided selves and cognitive dissonance that have become the norm. It's disappearing leisure, but also vanishing civility, tolerance, deliberation, craftsmanship and reflection. We're outrunning our own senses--of sight, smell, taste and hearing as well as of perspective, decency, hope and humor. It all adds up to a dizzying, exhausting and distressing daily spin. Increasingly we're confronted with a vital question: does life have a speed limit, and are we exceeding it?

No institution has felt the impact more than the family. When half of American fathers and a third of mothers work more than 40 hours a week, poor parents must often leave children unattended, and even higher income parents rush around from jobs to child care, schools to swimming lessons, scheduling residual "quality time" when they can. Meanwhile their hurried children are pressured to learn more faster, take more tests affecting their future sooner, while spending more time in the work world, learning valuable lessons in fryer management and smileology. While time management consultants offer to start with six year olds, the tension of overorganized lives can reach the breaking point--we never know when one of us will snap like elastic, or like an overregimented postal worker with a grievance-loaded gun. The Girl Scouts now give a merit badge in stress management.

It's this speed that has helped turn the suburban dream of peace and surcease into a blur of entrances and exits, and made the famous New York Minute seem about forty-five seconds too long.

Friendships and community bonds also take time, and so they suffer. Our community institutions wither: no one has time anymore to volunteer for the food bank or the art museum. Combined with our individualism and the breakdown of all binding forms and loyalties, the speed of life makes us lonely: it leaves us bereft when we feel a loss, and even forlorn when we triumph.

Meanwhile, speed batters our hearts and minds. Information floods us constantly, but it blips and vanishes faster than we can take it in; every item masquerading as vital knowledge in the competing clutter is a perishable product clamoring for our attention so insistently that inflated claims and distortions routinely add to the constant rush of inescapable ballyhoo.

Our memories are overrun, and our battle to just keep up obliterates our appreciation of the present and our vision of the future, so that today we are literally destroying the forests for the trees. In what Joni Mitchell memorably calls this "land of snap decisions, land of short attention spans", we are overbooked, overextended, overstimulated and overloaded; but we are also spiritually, intellectually and experientially underfed.

Time seems abstract and ethereal until you realize you don't have enough of it. Then it becomes clear that time is the very substance of life. But the quandary is how to slow down without giving up: how to get control of the speed of life.

To the jobless and underemployed as well as to those who are working harder in the desperate hope of staying even, the problems of speed and time may seems secondary but they are not. As Schor's statistics show, working longer hours does not mean being more productive, nor is an virtually indentured workforce necessary to a strong economy. Constantly responding to the same pounding uncontrollable schedule leads to high stress, fatigue, boredom, hostility--and inefficiency. Some American experiments as well as contemporary European practices indicate that more leisure and a workday "slowed down" by meaningful participation can increase productivity.

Still captives of obsolete Industrial Age attitudes towards time, American companies irrationally resist flex-time and parental leave, while both work and workers suffer. The quality of intellectual work clearly deteriorates in the manic clamor. But workplace innovations such as quality teams, fostering creativity and honoring achievement, and new forms of employment security, can also contribute to slowing down the speed of life.

That's because the speed of life is also subjective. Anxiety frenzies time; security blesses it. Powerlessness poisons time; autonomy reifies it. The paradox of time is that a moment experienced fully--a moment infused with meaning--slows down the overall sense of life speeding by. We need to assert more control over our time and begin to seek meaning as a way of slowing things down.
The issue of control is crucial. We feel empty and impatient standing on line and sitting in traffic partly because we're conditioned to constant stimulation and anticipation--we don't know what to do with the moment when we're not struggling to ride the tide. We've ceded control over how we experience our time. We have to reclaim our own rhythms.

In many ways, speed is a boundary problem. Americans started out with the motto, "Don't fence me in." Although we still crave for the minimally wide-open spaces of suburbia, we seem content to let everyone and everything invade our time. But even if we can move to a better place, we're stuck in our allotted space of days, moments, years. And the time may have come to defend the boundaries around the substance of our freedom: the integrity of our time.

If we start looking at societal problems in terms of time, there's hope for structural and attitude changes that allow us more variation, more control and more leisure. We can also slow down the speed of life by changing our experience of time. We've learned to ignore what our bodies and spirits tell us. We ignore the world's time--the cycles, the seasons, our life time. But our experience of speed involves our relationship to the rhythms of the natural world--from the seasons of leaves to the lifetime of a redwood, to the seasons of a child and the lastingness and goodness of what we leave behind for them and future generations. We must reintegrate cyclical time into consciousness and culture, as counteractive to the linear rush to nowhere.

We have to reintroduce some forgotten elements into the mix of our days--such as dreamtime, reflection, reverie--and legitimize and readmit to daily life a sense of the sacred. We can see ourselves in the fabric of generations, through art and culture.

Getting back in control of the speed of life is not easy.Not everyone can fold their mortgaged tent and head for rural villages in search of a simpler and slower life. But giving time its value and priority can lead to slow progress in slowing things down. Schor asserts that one reason Americans work so hard is to finance the time and money they spend in what another author (I believe it was me) called our cathedrals of consumption, the shopping malls (real or virtual.) When economic pressure forces reappraisals of consumption, we may come to realize that the real material of life is time. When calmer and fuller moments of your life begin to mean more than status or a new speedboat, then you can begin to design a lifestyle according to how much money you can make in the time you want to devote to making it. (Today's underemployed have an unwanted but perhaps valuable opportunity to begin this reevaluation.)

This is an inevitable component of seeking a better future while creating a better present. In addition to a sustainable economy and sustainable environment with sustainable energy sources, we must find a speed of life that we can sustain, and that can sustain us.

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