Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Faster! Faster!

     Alice could never quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying “Faster! Faster!” but Alice felt she could not go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.
     The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. “I wonder if all the things move along with us?” thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, “Faster! Faster! Don’t try to talk!”
     Not that Alice had any idea of doing that. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath: and still the Queen cried “Faster! Faster!” and dragged her along. “Are we nearly there?” Alice managed to pant out at last.
     “Nearly there?” the Queen repeated. “Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster!”

     [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass]

     He whom children of the past century know as “Lewis Carroll” was born in 1832 as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He was the son of an Anglican cleric, and rather religious himself. He was eventually made a deacon of the Church of England, and on several occasions expressed a profound Christian faith. Consider as an example this statement, made not long before his death, in response to a friend’s inquiry about his beliefs:

     I believe that when you and I come to lie down for the last time, if only we can keep firm hold of the great truths Christ taught us—our own utter worthlessness and His infinite worth; and that He has brought us back to our one Father, and made us His brethren, and so brethren to one another—we shall have all we need to guide us through the shadows. Most assuredly I accept to the full the doctrines you refer to—that Christ died to save us, that we have no other way of salvation open to us but through His death, and that it is by faith in Him, and through no merit of ours, that we are reconciled to God; and most assuredly I can cordially say, "I owe all to Him who loved me, and died on the Cross of Calvary." [From Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll]

     It is possible that much of Carroll’s “children’s fiction” was allegorical in nature. However, he never said or wrote any explicit statement to that effect. Here’s the closest I can find:

     As to the meaning of the Snark [he wrote to a friend in America], I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense. Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means. So, whatever good meanings are in the book, I'm glad to accept as the meaning of the book. The best that I've seen is by a lady (she published it in a letter to a newspaper), that the whole book is an allegory on the search after happiness. I think this fits in beautifully in many ways—particularly about the bathing-machines: when the people get weary of life, and can't find happiness in towns or in books, then they rush off to the seaside, to see what bathing-machines will do for them. [Ibid.]

     For my part, the Red Queen’s Race in the snippet from Through The Looking-Glass speaks powerfully about haste and bustle: in particular, their tendency to become ends in themselves, rather than occasionally employed means to some unusually urgent end.

     Many Americans of our time seem addicted to haste. Faster! Faster! This is critical! I need it by Friday! It has to be turned in by three! How can you just sit there staring at your cubicle wall? Faster! Faster!

     Well, Gentle Reader? How’s your Haste Quotient (HQ) this fine Tuesday morning? Checked your pulse lately? How about your blood pressure?

     I thought not.

     Hello, friends. My name is Fran, and I’m a haste addict.

     Among my greatest personal failings is this one: If I can’t see the end of an undertaking to be near and clear, I am powerfully inhibited against addressing it. It doesn’t matter whether the desire is at all reasonable. If I can’t envision the completion of the project at some time in the proximate future, I struggle to begin.

     Most of the people who’ve known me professionally would find that difficult to believe. My reputation was and is for getting it done – whatever “it” might be – a day early. In all my years I never missed a deadline to which I’d agreed beforehand...and on at least one occasion it came damned close to killing me.

     I’m not telling you this because it’s unique or exceptional, but the reverse: it’s become endemic among contemporary Americans. No, not everyone is quite as deep in the disease as I am. Some are better off; a pitiful few are worse. However, the majority of us suffer from it. The characteristics of the malady are uniform: the sense of time pressure, the race against the clock, urging us to ever greater haste in many if not most of the efforts we address each day.

     Even today, though I’m retired nearly a year, I still feel the seconds ticking away no matter what my current task might be. It takes an extraordinary conscious effort to slow down, to remind myself that there are no deadlines any longer, and an even greater effort to enforce a less lethal pace upon myself.

     However, that’s not the worst of it. The worst is the reluctance to start an extended project, knowing that I’ll feel myself to be in a Red Queen’s Race from the moment I begin.

     I remember reading, many years ago, a statement by a columnist in Car and Driver to the effect that civilization depends upon speed. In one sense, this is irrefutable. The speed with which we can produce or acquire the necessities of life determines whether we shall have any leisure. The speed with which we can produce or acquire the optional satisfactions and luxuries we seek determines the magnitude of what we usually call our prosperity. In those contexts, speed varies inversely with the prices of the things we need or want.

     But to enforce haste upon oneself – to demand that one operate at a high tempo – involves a price of its own. If it becomes habitual, the price can exceed any good one might purchase with it.

     “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long,” wrote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. In truth, that’s nowhere near the worst it can get; if pressed to flare beyond a certain brightness, the flame will burn itself out. This is no less true of men than of candlewicks.

     You might think this is mainly, perhaps even entirely, about haste at work. It certainly has application to the working world, where supervisors always seem to be trying to get their subordinates to go faster. But it also has application to one’s private, personal undertakings.

     Part of the reason I value my faith so greatly is its emphasis on peace. Peace might just be the most misunderstood of all the things we seek. Novelist Jo Walton made a particularly pointed observation about it some years ago, in reference to a specimen of warfare and the somewhat naive “peace” activists who were railing against it:

     “Peace means something different from ‘not fighting.’ Those aren’t peace advocates, they’re ‘stop fighting’ advocates. Peace is an active and complex thing and sometimes fighting is part of what it takes to get it.”

     The secular condition we call peace has a dynamic character. It’s not something one can acquire once and fondle unendingly; like love, it must be perpetually remade, made new. The reasons are far beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that it is in the nature of existence under the veil of Time that peace must be continuously maintained and renewed by individuals, families, communities, and nations.

     But secular peace is not the only kind, nor is it the most important. When in the Gospel According to John Christ says to His Apostles:

     Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. [John 14:27]

     ...clearly He is not speaking of “peace” as the diplomats mean it (“a state of tension falling short of actual armed conflict”), but of peace of the mind, heart, and soul. Moreover, it should be clear that the only agency capable of depriving us of that peace is ourselves.

     The prevailing tendency to train oneself, or to flog others, to perpetual haste forecloses access to that sort of peace. It might be the worst of the superficially non-violent things any man has ever done, whether to another or to himself.

     This is not an absolute or unconditional broadside against haste per se. Rather, it’s an exhortation to pace: the appropriate pace for the matter at hand. If haste is genuinely justified – by your judgment, no one else’s! – then make haste, but be aware of both the necessity, the reason for it, and the expiration thereof. At other times and in other circumstances, languidness or even stillness will serve you better. You’ll enjoy life more and will probably live longer. You’ll be more pleasant company as well.

     No matter your age or your station in life, if you have the sort of penchant for perpetual haste from which I suffer, this might prove to be the most important thing you’ll ever read. Don’t let not being able to see the finish line deter you from starting. Don’t let a need to see the finish line drive you to unnecessary, destructive haste. Perhaps most important of all, don’t take any guff from anyone else about your choices in such matters. It’s the sort of advice I wish someone had given to me when I was younger and could really profit from it.

     To those who are otherwise inclined – and especially to those who think they can profit by accelerating others! – I commend the late J. G. Ballard’s short story “Chronopolis,” about a society in which the pendulum has swung radically in the opposite direction and timepieces of the sort we use have been outlawed. Note in particular this snippet thereof:

     “Why is it against the law to have a clock?”
     Stacey tossed a piece of chalk from one hand to the other.
     “Is it against the law?”
     Conrad nodded. “There’s an old notice in the police station offering a bounty of one hundred pounds for every clock or wristwatch brought in. I saw it yesterday. The sergeant said it was still in force.”
     Stacey raised his eyebrows mockingly. “You’ll make a million. Thinking of going into business?”
     Conrad ignored this. “It’s against the law to have a gun because you might shoot someone. But how can you hurt anybody with a clock?”
     “Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something.”
     “Then you can make him do it faster.”

     May God bless and keep you all. And may the shade of Frederick Taylor forever repent of his sins against frail, frightened, irremediably weary working men.


Anonymous said...

" Among my greatest personal failings is this one: If I can’t see the end of an undertaking to be near and clear, I am powerfully inhibited against addressing it."

Absolutely NOT a personal failing. It's the ability to discriminate between the doable through reasonable means and the undo-able or barely doable through vast effort and many failures throughout the process. When we were working it didn't really mater whether the project was well thought out with reasonable goals or not, it just "was". Now that we are able to choose what hair-brained projects we attempt we are more discriminating.

Do we really need to drag all that frustration with us into retirement?

The "haste" you speak of is simply a desire to get rid of that sword hanging above our heads as quickly as possible.

Avraham said...

I can't do anything right with a time limit attached to it. Attach a time to it and the best I can do is mediocre or worse. I can't take pressure at all and it ruins my ability to concentrate. I know there are people not like that. I knew people that were very good at thinking fast and under pressure. But that is not me.

Ron Olson said...

My son is just like you Fran in the not starting a thing till you seen the end of it first. It's our greatest source of friction as a working team, of over 30 years. I can never "see" the end of a thing until after I've begun. Genius, ass, fiddler are some epithets we exchange. Our views on haste as might be guessed are just as different.

Anonymous said...

Haste for certain short-term goals seems okay. Otherwise, there's little profit in hurrying. Don't hurry into trying to fix small problems. They'll still be there tomorrow--or maybe not.

I went into semi-retirement thirty-six years back, at age forty-five. "Semi" basically meant that I no longer needed to be in any hurry except as it suited me--which was not any sort of regular occurrence. I then said, "Oh, the heck with it!" about ten years back. Now, you have to measure me against a fence post to see if I'm moving.

Life is good.