During dinner last night, a friend shared her concern that her daughters are diving into intense and committed relationships at ages 19 and 21 and exclaimed, “Why are they in such a hurry? Everyone is rushing everything these days, but there’s time! There’s time to fall in love and get married and have kids and do what you want to do in life!” She then added, “I mean, there’s not time, in one sense, but in another sense, there is.” Which pretty much sums up a conundrum I’ve wrestled with for years. Life is short, time flies, and yet we create our own realities of life and time through mindset, habit, and lifestyle.
The many conveniences and options we have available to us are simultaneously an amazing luxury and an overwhelming source of time-distortion. We have machines to cut hours of labor out of our lives, make travel from one distant location to another a fraction of what it would otherwise be, and have learned to be impatient when it takes a website more than two seconds to load. Things can be done more quickly, which makes us want to do more. If we want to relax with a little entertainment, we have literally thousands of options—cable TV channels; streaming movies or TV shows from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and dozens of other platforms; access to thousands of book titles, music options, and podcasts that we can download with the click of a button. Then there’s the internet, and the millions of articles, videos, and blogs (sorry) to read, watch, and listen to. It’s not uncommon for me to turn on my computer to check and send a couple e-mails, something that should take about 10 minutes, only to find myself still at the computer an hour and a half later due to some rabbit hole I’ve gone down because of something on my screen that looked enticing (gaarr, Facebook!)—an interesting article, a funny video, a recipe that promises to be easy and delicious using only 4 ingredients that will give me a flat belly. This doesn’t even include all the other daily busyness: working, doctor’s appointments, going to the dry cleaner’s, meeting up with friends.
And because there is so much to do and see and it all seems so (theoretically) attainable, time is constantly slipping away. As a result, I try to speed everything up. I hurry and rush. I multitask, my attention often skipping from one thing to the next without ever quite settling. I know I’m not the only one, and I wonder about the impact of all these conveniences and options on our collective psyches and the way it shapes our culture as a whole, which I know has probably been written about extensively and I could read all about by just typing a few key words into Google. But I’m just going to wonder about it for myself for now. Is it impacting my friend’s daughters, causing them to hurry even in potentially life-changing situations because that is the mode they are accustomed to operating in, or are they just being typical young people with a tendency towards speed and intensity? In what ways do all of us rush and hurry in all areas of our lives (including emotional and spiritual) because that’s become our default modality?
I think of another friend whose washing machine broke mid-cycle a few weeks ago. She had to take out all of her clothes, rinse and wring them as best she could in her sink, then put them into the dryer. Just the rinsing and wringing of one load took her over an hour. In relating this story, she expressed sympathy for women doing laundry prior to washing machines and dryers, and we marveled at how just that one task would take all day in “olden times.”
While I’m deeply thankful not to have to spend entire days washing my clothes, it does make me reflect on the differences between spending all day on one clear task vs. rushing through twenty different tasks. Time would definitely feel like it was going by more slowly, and I imagine there might be more peace. Less stress and less anxiety. Probably a lot more soul-killing boredom and drudgery as well. But if one replaces doing laundry with something more enjoyable and meaningful (not to say that clean laundry doesn’t have its importance), the entire self devoted to a single action and purpose for an extended period of time, it seems like it could offer a kind of antidote to the plague of hurry and rush. Or at least a balancing corrective.
Poet Theodore Roethke seems to think so. In his words, “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.” This is a guy who died long before personal computers and smart phones, but apparently haste was already a marker of life in the first half of the 20th century. I find this to be such a true and insightful comment, because it recognizes that there is a cost to haste and that our lives tend to be full of “everything else”: things that consume our hours but don’t really have any lasting or deep significance. And the antidote comes from “art.”
I think this is a big part of why I’ve always loved poetry and why I’ve been particularly drawn to reading and writing it in the last several years. Poetry and haste are completely antithetical. You can’t skim a poem. Truly, you can’t (try it). The way poetry is written demands careful attention, thoroughness, and a slow pace. To really get a poem and appreciate it, you have to invest some time, lingering over particular words and phrases, considering line breaks, visualizing images. The same thing is true of writing it. Those poems that come out in a rush intacto, the ones you don’t have to do much to, are wonderful but also rare. Most of the time, poems need a lot of work to become good poems. I can lose hours playing with line breaks and form, figuring out what can be cut, what words or phrases can be reworded to be stronger, what images or metaphors are most effective, what will produce the best rhythm and music in a line, etc. I enjoy going through this process in editing my friends’ poems just as much. And even though those hours are “lost” in the sense that I lose all track of time and more of it goes by than I usually anticipate, that passage of time produces a very different effect from spending that time on other kinds of activities.
After spending a large chunk of time reading articles online, watching TV, or meandering through Facebook, I typically feel a sense of anxiety and, in some cases, guilt/disgust. The time feels wasted. Though I might experience some enjoyment or pleasure in the moment, those positive feelings rarely last beyond that moment. Instead, my most typical response when I look at the clock is to spring into action, rushing to get through whatever’s on my list for the day and make up for the time lost. However, when I spend time reading literature and writing, I come out of those hours with a sense of deep contentment and satisfaction that lasts the rest of the day. On those days, it doesn’t bother me that I don’t get to some of the things on my list. I am freed from guilt and hurry. Yes, I may have spent half an hour writing and rewriting the same two lines, but that doesn’t feel like wasted time.
I don’t know that what I’m engaged in is capital “A” Art, but it’s at least an orientation and movement toward art, which I think serves the same purpose. And, as someone who has a tendency towards haste (as anyone who’s driven in a car with me can tell you), this is a wonderful thing, a discipline in taking my time. I experience this when I play the piano and pray as well. “Art” can encompass many things, after all. For some, it might be drawing or photography; for others, gardening or tinkering on a car’s engine. Rather than defining it by whether or not it can be hung in a museum or published in a journal, Roethke defines it by how it affects our relationship with time. And that’s a definition I find beautiful and, well, timely.