On Being Slow
We live in the age of speed. From our technology to our politics, getting things done quickly, without “dragging one’s feet,” has become the definitive virtue of modern existence; and I say “existence,” rather than life, since speed and life have very little to do with one another. This age we call “modernity” will likely be remembered, by the inhabitants of some future modernity, as the age that sped the human race right past life, beyond life, out of life.
There are, of course, instances in life when speed, in the plain sense of haste, seems beneficial, even necessary within a specific context. But the most significant of such instances will be infrequent in occurrence, isolated from the normal flow of life, and typically inessential beyond the level of our subjective, emotional interests. In other words, speed is not essential to anything of fundamental importance. In fact, fundamentals, which is to say foundations, are precisely what the fast-moving man necessarily fails to notice. When one is being anxiously prodded from behind, or urgently dragged from ahead, one cannot help but hurry, and in the process of hurrying, one ceases to notice much of anything apart from the rapid motion itself. In other words, the speeding man is concretely aware only of his own next step. Everything else is an abstract, flitting subjectivity, a revolving door of misapprehended reality for which modern man has developed the pseudoscientific concept of “consciousness.” This reality, if apprehended fully — i.e., experienced — could have provided the grounding and purpose of our movements, but instead provides little more than a blur; which blur, in a monumental feat of defensive rationalization, we speeding moderns boast that we alone can know, thanks to our materialist scientific perspective — and further, that this knowledge demands that one dispense with the ancient nonsense about immateriality, substance, and spirit. Those ideas, we tell ourselves, were the false categories of men who lacked our speed, and who were therefore too slow to recognize the ultimate reality of the blur.
To state this more prosaically: Speed, as modernity has defined it, is about chasing deadlines and skimming efficiently across surfaces, whereas in truth all the real meaning in life is found at depth, and is therefore accessible only to one moving slowly, methodically, and purposefully — to one exerting the patient, consistent force required to propel himself down, away from the surface.
Natural humanity, aka we slow ones, must resist the modern compulsion to confuse slowness with failure or inefficiency. That is, we must never be tempted to say of ourselves, “I wanted to do this, but failed,” or “I intended to do this, but missed the chance.” Rather, we are the ones who must say, “I am doing what I need to do, in the way, and at the pace, I need to do it.”
In my own life, as a simple example, I have often, perhaps usually, done or begun important things “late” or “slowly,” arguably too late and too slowly, from the point of view of immediate material benefit, i.e., from the modern perspective. But I have, in general, done them well. When I tell students my basic rule for living, “Don’t waste time,” I always clarify that this injunction has nothing to do with being prompt, or with what the hopelessly practical types call “time management.” For me, “not wasting time” is entirely unrelated to speed, in the modern sense of haste. One could take four days to complete a marathon, but spend every minute of those four days far more fruitfully than the Olympic champion. How quickly you finish a task has little or nothing to do with whether you used the time well, because completed “tasks” have little to do with living well.
But there is also this: Eventually, paradoxically, slowness, properly understood, becomes a profounder kind of speed. The slow life pursued without shame or compromise, without giving in to the demands of modernity’s assembly line (the skimmed surface), and simultaneously without wasting time (in the sense that I have just explained this), is the life in which every moment matters. As such, it is the life which has learned to stop measuring its duration by the spaces between “destinations,” i.e., by the insubstantial, meaningless lines that connect distant points. It is therefore a continuum of emphatic meaning, rather than a disparate series of occasionally-interrupted gaps. The slow life in the proper sense is the life of freedom — the freedom of depth and emphasis. For the slow man has divested himself of the breathless agitation, the hustle, that modernity, in its slavishness, mistakes for speed.
And the slow life must never be confused with the lazy life. The lazy man lacks speed of movement to be sure, but not because he is immune to the compulsion of the race, but rather because he lacks the will to keep up the pace. The slow soul, by contrast, feels no compulsion to run. On the contrary, his greatness of will is proved precisely by his ability to resist the urge to join the soul-diminishing race when everyone around him is screaming “Hurry up!”
Aristotle (Nic. Eth. IV.3) says that the proud man is thought to be slow of step, because few things are urgent to one for whom few things are worthy of great concern. Would a god ever feel the need to hurry? What would compel a god’s haste? The slow life, lived without distractions, is the human approximation of divine speed, which is to say of God’s pace. To live at God’s pace would be to live without artificial stops and starts, because without transitory destinations (“completed tasks”). And where there are no perceived gaps to be traversed between points, all points, in a sense, become one. Thus, since time is the measure of motion — and hence in part a byproduct of perceived distance — the divine clock ticks slowly. Its moments are centuries. Divine time is an inexhaustible continuum, a smooth arc without end.
The perfectly slow life would be that in which nary a moment is wasted, and hence in which hurrying, a relative concept, is both impossible and superfluous.
Acceleration indicates a perceived distance from a goal, combined with a perceived lack of time to reach it. This combined perception of great distance and lack of time is most apparent in one who is lost, which is to say one who has no idea where he is going. Subjective time, for such a person, shrinks (i.e., speeds up) exponentially with each quickened step, because he never knows whether he is moving towards his (unknown) destination or away from it, and is therefore filled with growing apprehension about what might happen should he fail to get there “in time.”
As modernity became obsessed with speed as both essential and an end in itself, rather than as a mere accident and means, she also forgot the truer meaning of speed, namely economy of movement, in favor of the modern error of confusing speed with frenetic activity, i.e., meaningless and slavish motion.
Leave modern man to his breathless race to nowhere. Speed, in the sense of haste, is a property of the body, which suits modernity well. Slowness is of the nature of the soul, and is therefore an ancient virtue.