On Slowness and New Possibilities

One thing I have been thinking differently about in this time of difference is the nature of time itself.  Time is malleable -it stretches and shrivels. This worldwide pandemic crisis has disrupted schedules and routines and has, for some, slowed time.  

Not all of us like it – some people need to keep their routines, can’t work from home, and are having to scurry to maintain food and shelter for selves and family.  This kind of time is compressed, anxiety-filled. I cannot really begin to describe this kind of time. For many of us, the changes are less drastic, more minor – times of inconvenience not peril.

From some adolescents in these conditions of inconvenience, I have heard the common youthful refrain to any in-between time – boredom.  While for some of us, the interruption has resulted in a pleasant slowing – a SSLOOOWWWWINNNG. For some of us not suffering immediate hazard to health or home, might this reconsideration of our relationship to time ultimately advance the greater good?  

Normally on a day like this, I rise at 5:10 am and dress with ninja-stealth so not to rouse all my household’s sleeping creatures.  I slink into the 5:30 am dark to catch the city bus just beginning its route. I exit and walk across near-empty parking lots and along still-quiet streets to catch a shuttle for the hour ride to campus in Blacksburg.  On that ride, I am prepping for class or emailing and then I am on my way to class at 8 am and then work appointments and office work, and on Thursdays, like this, a recurring weekly work team meeting at 9:15.  

And I have pockets of aloneness and solitude in my days, which is more leisure-full than many people’s days.  As Josh Cohen writing for the Guardian put it, “We’re living in a culture governed by a permanent compulsion towards frenetic activity or fevered distraction.”

This morning, instead of the usual pre-dawn rush, I rose slowly and naturally at 7, walking our dog, sitting with coffee in a favorite chair,  and reading the paper while Biscuit hopped indecisively onto and down from my lap. I spoke with my family, sharing laughter and breakfast. I dressed and grabbed my Bluetooth headphones, leaving the house just after 9 and speaking with my office colleagues as I strolled along sunny sidewalks past green shrubs and oddly emptied schools and down the avenue where slender young pear trees trumpeted their clustering blossoms of brilliant white.  I was in no rush. And, the experts say that it is still ok to take a walk, that contemplative strolls support our physical health and mental well-being.

Maybe crisis seeds a reconsideration of time and its value. A renewed sense of our relationship to time, and a reconsideration of how we spend it.  The proliferation of books and workshops and articles and apps on mindfulness in recent years suggest a yearning for this kind of reconsideration. Mindfulness is certainly of value. Being here now.  Although the business of mindfulness is problematic and what some have labelled a “mindfulness conspiracy”.  I place a lot more value on mindfulness than Ronald Purser does in his Guardian article, but he sounds a needed caution that rings true to me:

“Mindfulness, like positive psychology and the broader happiness industry, has depoliticised stress. If we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, and seeing our children incur massive debt through college loans, it is our responsibility [according to the mindfulness industry] to learn to be more mindful.”

 A group of 15 psychiatrists, psychologists, and mindfulness experts from 15 different institutions co-contributed to a 2017 paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.  The authors described problems with the “mindfulness industry” where so many organizations and individuals, including many with good intentions, were focused more on making money than providing real value to people.  The group is concerned that “misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed.”

There are workplaces that offer mindfulness sessions as part of a wellness program while simultaneously encouraging us to keep over-full schedules, shared calendars, constant email and smartphone responsiveness, or to always be selling.  For those of us who want to do some good in the world, serve our communities, and tackle big challenges, some of this stress is self-imposed. We want to do more so we can contribute more. And so maybe we turn to mindfulness or a one day technology detox or another type of band-aid solution, while the larger wound remains.  Perhaps we need a shift in our relationship to time itself.

Maybe placing more value on a kind of deliberate idleness or a slowness is a kind of answer.  Alan Lightman’s book, In Praise of Wasting Time, is one example here.   Lightman also describes a cultural problem in our society that over-values speed and busyness.  This rush, writes Lightman, may be antithetical not only to our personal well-being but also to creativity itself.   Slowing down and wasting time is a kind of maker-space, an incubator for divergent thinking. 

See this short video for a quick primer on divergent thinking from Sir Ken Robinson, a leading thinker on education and creativity.  As Robinson described, it, divergent thinking is “…the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question, lots of possible ways to interpret a question, to think laterally, to think not just in linear or convergent ways, to see multiple answers, not one.”  

Lightman connects this notion to time, as divergent thinking, “…does not cooperate on demand. It is not easily summoned. It does not follow the clock. It cannot be rushed. It withers and fades under external schedules and noise and assignments.”  More importantly, Lightman says we may be losing ourselves in the flurry of modern life.  In her review of Lightman’s book, Anita Pavlico writes that Lightman calls on us to devote half our waking hours to reflective thinking and for people to develop new mental habits to cultivate “…stillness, solitude, slowness, and personal reflection into our lives”.   Perhaps a 5 or 15 minute mindfulness app exercise can help, but it is insufficient without a more radical restructuring of our days. 

Patricia Hampl, a writer and poet, also writes about the value of wasting time.   This is linked to noticing, to seeing. As for her, time spent doing nothing is a necessary antidote to our “deadline-driven” adulthood, as Rebecca Foster wrote in the LA Review of Books.   This time is not simply fuel for creativity and divergent thinking – instead we are better able to simply notice things, to truly be present and yes, even mindful.  Mindfulness here is not in your smartphone or seminar room, but in your lifestyle, in a pursuit of non-pursuit.

As Keiran Setiya described in a review of books related to idleness by Lightman, Hampl and Brian O’Connor others for Public Books,

Idleness is another mode of flourishing, against which the lure of striving and success should seem, at best, a lifestyle choice. 

Setiya’s essay calls attention to a tension or dialectic between idleness and impact, or purpose.  Idleness as an end is perhaps simply laziness. We need a purpose, an aim, a calling and to live out life against a context of meaning.  So idleness, like so many things, is not an absolute good, but neither is it simply an ill. Instead it may be useful to consider a more even balance between work and play where play encompasses solitude and reflection and in-between or slowed time.  Maybe this is more of a practice or a way.

In Aeon, Vincenzo Di Nicola crafted a manifesto-style essay on Slow Thought.   Drawing inspiration from the Slow Food movement, he suggests Slow Thought as a kind of a counter-movement to a prevailing cultural ideal of fast action  – evidenced by slogans like “Just do it, Move fast and break things, YOLO (You only live once).” These are illustrative of a dominant strain of thought in our consumerist society that privileges acceleration and acting quickly and tends to marginalize deliberation and contemplative thought.  Drawing from Alain Badiou’s theory of the event, Di Nicola suggests Slow Thought can encourage the imagination by welcoming the unpredictable, and recognizing spaces and breaks, “ in our everyday worlds that open new possibilities”

It is this creation of spaces for new possibilities that I want to emphasize here.  Every crisis brings tragedy and suffering. That is not to be minimized or too quickly brushed aside.  As I write this on March 19, 2020, there are 230, 542 active Coronavirus cases world-wide and 9,390 deaths.  Cities, and some entire countries are sheltering in places. Children are hungry and scared. Parents and adults are hungry and scared.  Some industries are decimated and personal wealth is plummeting. Still, it is not Pollyanna-ish to recognize crisis as a fertile ground for possibility as well.

Christof Mauch suggests a kind of slowness I had not considered, that might be instructive for us as individuals and communities.  This is Slow Hope. Like others described here, Mauch remarks on our cultural fascination with speed, as “acceleration is the signature of our time”.  Mauch champions the significance of small stories of possibility, of hope. Long-term challenges like climate change are complex and the solutions won’t happen overnight, yet we need stories of hope in process as inspiration and remedy.  As Much writes, 

The concept of slow hope suggests that we can’t expect things to change overnight…Identifying ways to transcend the craze of consumption, production, travel and extreme workloads in a merry-go-round world can be inspiring and subversive. Our saving powers will come from diverse cultures and initiatives, from thinkers and mavericks and urban and rural communities around the world. They will come from a growing number of people who understand the power inherent in the way that we imagine better worlds, who think creatively and act ecologically: from women and men who are inspired by slow hope.

For me, the lessons here reinforce the importance of our project of social possibility – we are in challenging times, a new normal.   While speedy responses to emergency are needed, we also should seek nourishment and inspiration and Slow Hope from stories and from the time and space to explore and see and notice and think in different ways.  And it is truly a long haul journey we are all on. Get off the highway every once in a while, linger in the slow lane, pause at the scenic overlook. And do share your stories.