People as Pacemakers

I know a man who had a device implanted near his heart not long ago because his heart had ceased to correctly regulate the flow of blood around his body. We call this a pacemaker. If the heart doesn’t pump blood with a certain regularity, all day and all night, not too fast and not too slow, the body itself is in critical danger of shutdown and death. Pacemakers come in to artificially correct the heart in the direction of its natural tendency and bring the body back to normal again.

There is also a pulse in a society. There is a rhythm – or rather, many rhythms, working together in a complex harmony – underneath the surface of the cultural ocean, undulating and producing ‘waves’, creating back-and-forth flows that we observe in trade, information, media, arts, production, consumption, and the coordinated movement of our lives around one another.

This rhythm is almost begging to be regulated these days. I often think that our societal pacemakers are malfunctioning.

Have you noticed, or felt, that we have made an idol of speed?

I spend some of my days as a PC repairman. This week, a problematic laptop came in and it seems like I will not be able to get it back to normal without replacing the hard drive – that is, the piece of equipment holding all the valuable information of the computer’s owner. Why does it no longer function normally? Why can the owner no longer see her documents and the pictures of her family and friends, or communicate with them via Skype and email? While using it several days ago, she became frustrated with how slow it was responding to her commands and she picked it up and slammed it on the countertop.

Before you laugh at her, think about how you might have broken a relationship, an opportunity, a venture, a community, or a contract because something wasn’t moving fast enough.

The Societal Pulse

If you’ve been under a rock and only just emerged, allow me to explain that life in the West moves fast.

Somewhere, way back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the ‘modern’ period, we began to move faster in order to accomplish something. As our ingenuity with machinery provided more and more ways to expedite labor and produce far more goods to meet basic needs, we sped up our pace and we worked more hours in order to achieve some sort of real good for people who needed food, clothing, and shelter. Faster work in the laboratories might mean a quicker discovery of a cure.

Today things are not the same. We have ‘progressed’.

Now moving fast has become an end in itself, and there is nothing so sacred that it cannot be sacrificed at the altar of speed. Like any addiction, with the progress of time, more is necessary to satisfy the craving than there was before. These days, we are even increasing the speed of the pulse around us at a faster and faster rate. We’re speeding up speed itself.  Just get on Youtube and watch some TV – say, a news program – from the 1960’s, and then turn on one of our 24-hour news networks. Sometimes, a ‘story’ on such a program is run in sixty to ninety seconds (typically in under five minutes). Commercials, of course, are probably the best example of the compression of time and the worship of speed. This is accomplished through the magic of film editing and rapid cuts, once a device of the silver screen that has been applied to nearly everything we see on any screen.

The statistics are unbelievable concerning our attention span on the internet. You can find these everywhere – especially if you analyze your own habits – so I’m not going to start citing them. Just reflect: are you among the majority who will look at something else, abandoning your current track of research, if the page you are trying to load takes more than four seconds to begin displaying?

We expect to work fast, read fast, shop fast, eat fast, get there fast, change fast, lose weight fast; we imagine that we can be informed quickly, learn everything that happened worth noting in the world today in thirty minutes (with frequent commercial breaks), acquire skills rapidly, and get the ‘gist’ of the book in the introduction. Even our leisure is fast.

Is this good for us?

The Beat Goes On (But Can We Slow it Down?)

Our cultural pulse beats with increasing frequency, and I think we’re moving toward a wall that we may have already begun to slam into. You know what I’m talking about. It’s the wall I always refer to as limits. We are still finite creatures in a finite world.

I believe it was G.K. Chesterton who said ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.’ Moving at the breakneck pace of this society certainly causes us to do many things badly, though the things do ‘get done’, at least after a fashion. I would like to offer a statement in the Chestertonian mode, but in the form of a question:

Should anything really worth doing be ‘done’ as quickly as possible?

Other than in the case of extraordinary emergencies, I think the answer to that question is ‘no’. Sacrificing everything to speed and efficiency is really sacrificing everything. We weren’t made to move this fast, and we don’t have to.

How can we stop pulsating and start being pacemakers? Here are a few things that may help.

  • Media fast. I wrote about that here. If your life is fairly well mediated, try this first.
  • Slow down in your daily tasks. At every opportunity, slow down, pay attention to what you are doing in the moment – whether it’s washing dishes, reading to the kids, driving out to eat – and breathe more deeply.
  • Do less in the day, and try to do only what is most important.
  • Drive slower. I’m serious. Just factor in two to five minutes more to get there. You’ll not only relax a bit in the car, but you’ll save gas money, avoid breaking the law, and possibly save your life and the lives of your family.
  • Eat slower. Really taste what you’re eating. This will accomplish many purposes – it will give you a disdain for fast food, make mealtime more enjoyable for all concerned, and encourage conversation and compliments to the chef.
  • Spend more time outdoors observing the natural world. I cannot explain to you how much of a benefit this can be. When you are in the woods, things rarely move fast or demand sacrifices to speed. Everything seems to breathe out there, and the pulse slows way down.

I knew a leader once (when I was a lowly student), a man who was supposed to be an example for hundreds of college students, who told me in his office that he had recently acquired a device for his car that allowed him to speed up cassette tape playback. He had bought this in order to listen to sermons, teaching, and motivational lectures twice as fast – thus improving productivity, getting more done in less time. He was so excited about it that I didn’t know how to tell him that I thought it was a destructive idea that defeated the whole purpose and benefit of listening, destroying the balance and thoughtful timing of a good teacher – I mean, how would your wives feel, men, if you came home with a device that would speed up their end of the conversation by fifty percent?

Don’t be that guy.

Listen to this song (and read the words on the page) from one of my favorite songwriters, David Wilcox, that brilliantly portrays a heart attack as a metaphor for a way of living.

Slow down. Become a pacemaker. If you have to zap fry your pop tarts in three seconds, you’re booking yourself too tight.

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.