“We have little time, so we must move very slowly.” Many years ago, when I was serving on the Friends for a Non-violent World (FNVW) board, the director, a lovely Quaker man named John …
“We have little time, so we must move very slowly.” Many years ago, when I was serving on the Friends for a Non-violent World (FNVW) board, the director, a lovely Quaker man named John Martinson, offered this wisdom to us as we faced the usual nonprofit juggling challenges of fundraising, recruiting members and volunteers, and maintaining programs. In my early 40s, I was juggling a lot on my own: creating a home-based business while working temp jobs to keep the bills paid; maintaining a large duplex with all the home ownership and tenant demands; volunteering hours every week; and finding time for friends and fun. Move more slowly? It sounded like a beautiful idea, but no doubt I also thought, “Sure, easy for you to say. I’d love to slow down, but you have an assistant at work and a wife at home. I have to juggle lots of things all on my own. I usually feel like I have to speed up, not slow down.”
While it may seem counterintuitive, that phrase contains a depth and breadth of wisdom that philosophers have long understood and is even found in the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism: “Life is short, so we must move very slowly.” Recently I was in a virtual discussion with some friends, two of whom were going through cancer treatments, who I’ll call Sam and Sarah. I am a cancer survivor, and others in the group have faced their own difficult challenges. We talked about how our experiences forced us to slow down, giving us opportunities to see our lives from a different perspective.
Sam reflected that all his life he has been a helper: as a doctor, with his family and community, and after retirement, serving as a volunteer in Africa training medical personnel. He was always willing to step up and lend a hand, but now it’s his turn to move more slowly and accept help from others. He said, “I’ve never taken the time before to watch closely as the season changes.” He said, “I’ve been watching the tree change color outside my window, and it’s fascinating. The green leaf gradually loses its greenness while the reds and yellows creep in and then dominate. I’ve always enjoyed nature and trees, but I’ve never known a tree this personally before. I can’t do all those things that I valued so much before, but I’m living at a different pace now and still learning new things.” Sarah is facing her tests and potentially worsening news with her usual vigor and sense of humor. She has named her lymph nodes and gives them pep talks to stay strong and healthy.
I shared the “move very slowly” phrase, and our conversation went deeper. Sam’s wife is a retired nurse turned poet, and I asked, “Isn’t that part of your process? To slow down and notice the nuance?” She described how she mentally moves into a different mode, which some call being in the zone, immersed in the search for just the right one in an ocean of words. She reserves time to devote to poetry, going to poetry groups and readings, as well as writing, and feels it gives her life breathing room and balance.
We have all experienced that “stretchiness” of time. Sometimes it seems to drag on forever when we want it to move quickly, waiting for a bus, watching the pot boil. Other times it zips by at startling speed, “How could that bill be due again? It feels like I just paid it!” People in their older years often speak about how the months and years fly by more quickly, and I have conjectured that part of that is personal relativity: that each piece of time, whether minute, hour, day or month, is an increasingly smaller percentage of our total life lived up to now, so perhaps it feels like a smaller unit of time, moving by more swiftly. But for many years, I’ve been hearing much younger people complain about the same thing: “Where does the time go? I feel like I’m crazy busy but never getting everything done that I want to. Our family never sits down for dinner together. Sometimes I barely see my partner until the weekend. I can barely breathe.”
Many people recognize the pace of life in our modern culture is not desirable nor healthy, but most of us aren’t very successful at making changes. Don’t we have to meet all these commitments and grab onto every opportunity? Isn’t the point to cram in as much living as possible, check off the bucket list items, try to outrun the inevitable final curtain, thumbing our nose at death?
Throughout my life, I have often been overcommitted, anxious about fulfilling my obligations well, frustrated by not having time to do many of the things I’m interested in. As a generalist, that list is long. I have learned how to say no, to pass up opportunities I’d love to say yes to. It can still be painfully difficult. Recently, I had a BFO event - a Blinding Flash of the Obvious: when I allow more time to do what I need to and take breaks and even naps…(wait for it…)…I feel less anxious and more relaxed! I have pots of flowers on my small deck, and I sit with my morning coffee, watching the new leaves appear and unfurl and the tiny flower buds peek out, then expand into gorgeous blossoms. How incredible is that? Sometimes when I’m focused on a project, I’ll take five minutes to go sit with the plants. I feel at peace in my potted garden, and I’m sure my blood pressure decreases.
For most of us, the pandemic demanded that we slow down and step out of our usual lives, which was a difficult adjustment for many and a welcome relief from excessive busyness for others. Here in the Northland, we welcome the quieter surroundings when the tourists leave and the blanket of winter softens the noise of our lives.
When we slow down, we can experience lower levels of stress and anxiety, and therefore more calm. We can gain clarity about what we want to do, what we need to do, and what we can let go of. We can feel more in control. Giving ourselves a slowdown break, if only briefly, allows our minds to clear out the brain fog for better decision-making. As we stretch and breathe, the tension leaves our bodies. We may find new insights about our choices as we let projects rest and rise, like a good loaf of bread. We may even find that we’re more productive.