Life in the Slow Lane

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

"Adopt the pace of nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson advised. “Her secret is patience.” Emerson might fairly be accused of the “pathetic fallacy” here — ascribing human emotions to plants, animals or inanimate objects. Except that in context he wasn’t really making an observation about nature so much as about the need for patience in education. He used as an example the naturalist who finds that birds and animals will flee from him in fear if he is in a hurry. But if he learns to sit still, the birds and animals will get used to his presence and come to him so he can study them. “These creatures have no value for their time,” he wrote.

These creatures have no real concept of time at all, and yet somehow they take part in the vast choreography of nature with the most intricate sense of timing. Everything is done in due season: the mating, the budding, the blossoming, the pollination, the nesting, the hatching, the birthing, the flowering, the pollination, the molting, the eating and sleeping, the migrating, the hibernating — each unfolding in turn, seamlessly, without hesitation or premeditation. How do God’s creatures manage it?

The ultimate timekeeper is the earth’s rotation on its axis, which is more accurate than any mechanical clock.* (The earth is accurate to within 0.0017 seconds per century.) The biorhythms of almost every plant and animal are keyed to the resulting cycles of day and night, with individual cells detecting changes in light or temperature. Humans are no less governed by these circadian rhythms (from the Latin circa diem, “about one day). They affect everything from body temperature and cardiovascular function to metabolism and sleep patterns.

Not only are plants and animals perfectly capable of functioning without a concept of time, thanks to their cellular “clocks,” but even early humans were able to get by with no sense of time apart from the actual unfolding of events. Hunter-gatherer tribes might be aware of seasonal changes but, unlike sedentary farmers, they were not involved with annual cycles of planting and harvesting. The language of the Amazonian Amondawa tribe, which had no contact with the outside world prior to 1986, includes no words for “time” or increments of time, such as “month” or “year.” Aborigines in central Australia measure time in “sleeps,” which is how my granddaughter did it as a two-year-old. When she wanted to know how long before her grandparents came for their next visit, she might be told they would arrive in two more “sleeps,” or days.

When our early ancestors needed to keep track of human activity beyond a single day, they looked to the night sky. Neolithic bone carvings and cave art appear to show the waxing and waning of the moon in what may be the first primitive calendars that could be used for annual cycles of planting and harvesting. Ancient civilizations — among them the Mayans, Babylonians and Greeks — were careful observers of the heavens and developed methods for predicting solar and lunar eclipses. The first mechanical clocks were developed by medieval monks who needed a way to get up in the dark of the night to pray. (Sundials have obvious drawbacks in this regard.) Clocks were soon installed in bell towers to regulate the commercial life in the towns. Then railroad conductors and shop foremen began carrying pocket watches to keep things running on time.

The eventual effect was to divorce time from the natural order, which made it possible to speed things up. Ben Franklin probably did more than anyone in this regard when he said, “Remember that time is money.” Now that time had become a numerical abstraction, it became possible to divide time into money and come up with a handy measure of productivity. Franklin also realized there was an opportunity cost in not spending one’s time in useful labor. Factories operated night and day, and assembly lines were speeded up to gain productivity. Since there was never any more time, you had to do more in the time you had to get more. Eventually, everyone was run ragged trying to keep up.

The American physician Larry Dossey has coined the term “time sickness” to describe this phenomenon. While its symptoms can affect the body, time sickness is primarily a mental disorder springing from the delusion that time is speeding up. And because we think time is accelerating, we must speed up ourselves in order to keep from falling behind. Of course, we know that time isn’t actually going any faster, but that is how we experience it, both mentally and physically. We live life as if we are always running late.

What is the remedy? Perhaps we should learn to listen to our own bodies, every cell of which is attuned to the circadian rhythms of day and night. The earth isn’t spinning any faster than it used to; in fact, it is slowing ever so slightly at the rate of 0.0017 seconds per century. Emerson advised us to adopt the pace of nature. That was easy for him to say. He was born into a world where people still got around on foot or on horseback, and ships were powered by wind rather than steam or diesel. There were as yet no railroad conductors or shop foremen brandishing pocket watches, although there soon would be.

Still, Emerson had a point: nature’s secret is patience. Even allowing for a bit of anthropomorphizing, we must allow that nature never gets ahead of itself. Everything unfolds in its own good time, which is really no time at all — or at least not the kind of time that we are used to, in which we are always playing catchup. In Taoism, there is a term for this unfolding: wu wei, which is usually translated as “without action” and is often used in the phrase wei wu wei, meaning “action without effort.” When one’s actions are aligned with the natural flow of the universe, all seems to get done in its own good time with no strain or struggle. Everything seems to happen spontaneously, without hesitation or premeditation, and yet you can set your watch by it.

*A second as a unit of time is now calibrated according to the oscillations of a cesium atom rather than in relation to the earth’s rotation on its axis.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lectures and Biographical Sketches (1883)

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