America’s obsession with speed, performance and “effectiveness,” which suited the Post War generation so well on its long journey through adulthood, grates on people who are edging into elderhood in ways not unlike the well-loved relative who has overstayed her welcome. The first impulse that many people have is to complain about how much faster the world seems to be moving. It is tempting to pin the blame for our own growing unease with the fast life on society at large rather than on changes in ourselves. The best way for people living in late adulthood to break out of this cycle of blame is to admit, openly, that the the change is internal, rather than external. They are, in fact, slowing down. This admission is especially helpful in dealing with the persistent late adulthood yearning for a life that is much more balanced. Our culture might continue to insist that “fast beats slow” every time and, much more ominously, that fast is morally superior to slow but our lived experience reveals a different and much more authentic truth.
Sometimes beautifully and lovingly, sometimes harshly and painfully our lives have taught us that fast is not always best. It is impossible, for example, for even the most loving parent to accelerate the speed at which a toddler eats her breakfast. The seconds might be racing past and it might be true that “we should have left seven minutes ago” but a young child can not and should not be made to experience urgency in the same manner as an adult. On a much more grown-up level, many couples who have been together for a long time, have felt the urgency and thrill once felt with sex begin to wane. The “quickie” which once served as a way to spice things up can be become a habit. Sex conducted in a fast and orderly fashion as might be highly “effective” but it also robs a relationship of its intimacy and passion. Connecting with another person, actually being with that person takes time and if that time is constantly being compressed, the connection can be ruined.
When I was in medical school I saved up the time I needed to make a transcontinental ride on a bicycle. Having flown from Boston to San Francisco, I started the long journey home with a ride down the Pacific Cast Highway. I soon found a narrow and, I thought, abandoned stretch of beach, where I could “baptize” my bike. As I rolled its back tire into the Pacific Ocean I caught sight of a middle-aged man strolling along the beach. He was shirtless and his chest bore what I recognized as a fresh scar, probably from heart bypass surgery. We soon struck up an amiable conversation and I noticed how at ease he was and how carefully he studied the sun and the sky, the gulls and the splash of salt water on rock. After a few minutes we parted ways but I never forgot him. He had given me a glimpse of what it was like to proudly and joyfully live a slow life. Choosing to live slowly is especially difficult when the world surrounds us with fast food, fast cars, fast conversations, fast families and fast holidays. This man has, clearly, stared into the abyss of his own mortality and the the experience had changed him. There is, however another easier and more joyful route into the “slow life.” Life beyond adulthood and the journey into elderhood enables us to sample slow living in new ways, to explore it contours and savor its richness.
Our heavily adultified society makes it difficult to find the exit ramp that leads away from the fast life. Although many adults speak longingly of a better “work-life balance,” they find it difficult to create or maintain such a balance. The Cult of Adulthood has been especially effective in enforcing an all or nothing duality when it comes to the speed at which we live our lives. We believe, usually without question, that we must live fast or risk losing our status, our livelihood or even our house. In the Covey tradition, our culture equates anything less than a full commitment to the fast life as a dangerous form of failure. There is a second-hand store in my neighborhood that features rows of very inexpensive used computers each of which used to be the “fastest” ever made. The machines are now dusty relics from an earlier era, one step away from the landfill. People who aren’t as fast as they used to be or (even more dangerously) not as fast as they need to be are judged negatively in both practical and moral terms. They are lazy, they have “lost it,” they can’t keep up.
Even though we are often encouraged to think of ourselves as such, we are not machines and “inactivity” is not equivalent to obsolescence. Elderhood brings with it an opportunity to explore and seek mastery over a life lived without hurry. The First Crucible pop music duo Simon and Garfunkle reflected on “slow living” over a half century and rereading lyrics from “The 59th Street Bridge Song” creates an eery feeling given what was to come.
Slow down you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feeling groovy
The celebration of the intrinsic value of time and of direct sensory experience. There is even time, it seems, for non-sense syllables.
Hello lamppost whatcha’ knowin’
I’ve come to watch your flowers growin’
Ain’t cha got no rhymes for me?
Doo-it in doo doo, feeling groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feeling groovy
This song was clearly written by a person who has yet to complete a set of personal five and ten year goals Also, is there anything more flagrantly ineffective than spending a day watching plants (that you don’t even own) grow? Here is the kicker…
I got no deeds to do
No promises to keep
The song offers a vision of life lived without the constraints and limitations of conventional adulthood. Revisiting its message on the cusp of elderhood allows us to see its message in a new light. The singers sense that there is value in being able to choose whether we will work or rest. There is value in being able to rest when we are weary, that when we stop to pay attention to the world it rewards us with unexpected peace and pleasure. The passage into elderhood, relentlessly derided for its notable diminution of endurance and vigor is actually preparatory for a deeper, richer, slower way of living. It is preparing us for life beyond adulthood in much the same way that puberty readied us for life beyond childhood. It is a passageway that leads into new and much slower, ways of living.