Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Speed Kills

My freshman classes gave their final presentations this week. One question served as the linchpin of our course this semester: "What does 'getting an education' mean?" Their assignment was to take a long view of the semester and think about how these last 15 weeks have helped (or not helped) to answer that question. Most came up with similar ideas, citing a better understanding of American culture, the world in which we live, how to ask good questions, and how to value and evaluate differing and opposing viewpoints. This is basically what I expected, and was pleased that these themes were identifiable.

But, I was surprised at how many specifically mentioned our conversation of "Time" as an important part of the course. We did this way back in early February, yet a number of students tagged those classes as the pivotal week of the course. Students were divided into groups of three of four and given a short chapter from Alan Lightman's wonderful little book, Einstein's Dreams. It is a fictional foray into Einstein's thoughts on alternative views of time (time flowing in reverse, eternal life, time as cyclical instead of linear, etc). What many students realized was that "Time" is merely a measurement of "Life." Time consists of human-made increments of life: seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years, decades, centuries.

The question then becomes, "What is important in life?" If we live from point to point, checking off the list as we go, we eventually (and quickly) come to an ending point. This speeds up our lives. We are born, we grow into adults, we graduate high school and head to college, we find a partner, we get married, we establish a career, we have kids, we raise kids, we retire, and then we die. This pattern is not inherently bad, but it if we live each stage with blinders on, constantly looking to the next point, we fail to recognize what is happening to the left of us. We ignore the beauty to right of us. We might even forget what has happened behind us and got us to any particular "point." Our obsession with "the next level" speeds us up and hastens the completion of our "Time." Eventually, there are no more points to connect, and no more steps to climb. We spend our lives racing to the next point and forget to live while we are doing it.

In his book Faster, James Gleick notes how we maniacally hammer the "door close" button in elevators. Once we press it and it lights up, the doors are in the process of closing. Whether we press the button no more times or jackhammer it with 37 mini-punches with our index finger, the door close time will be the same. What's the rush? We feel that we are "wasting time," but where will this "saved" time go? For most, it will probably be frittered away flipping through one of their 500 television channels later in the evening.

For students, this time in college is not a four-year waiting room before they start their "real life." As John Cougar/Cougar Mellencamp/Mellencamp once sang, "Your life is now." Certainly, we should focus on studies, cultivate our marriages, raise our children, and look to the future. But, we must take off the blinders while we do these things. We must see the others to the left and right of us who are celebrating, hurting, striving, falling, living and dying. We must view our current "level" as where we are and not be solely focused on "what's next." We should slow down and savor the daily wonders that we enjoy. Savor the coffee. Stand in the burning sun and feel the brutal humidity if just for a moment. Allow the bitter cold to sting our skin before opening the door into a heated building. Pause and thank God for the work that we have to do today. Take the stairs instead of pounding the worn-out elevator button. Take a stroll (or run, of course) and leave our watches on the counter. This is not "wasted" time. This is life.

The supreme irony that a marathon runner, who has been so focused on a Boston Qualifying TIME of late, is writing about slowing down is not lost on me. But, what do I experience when I run? Is it a means to an end? No. My pursuit of "faster" will hopefully allow me to experience more "life" in a trip to Boston.

Savor your moments today and every day, and look behind, to the right, and to the left of you as you do so.

*Check out these two books...if you have "time," of course:
Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams, (New York: Warner Books, 1993).
James Gleick, Faster, (New York: Vintage, 1999).


Kevin Burt said...


Very, very good. Thanks.


Brandon Andrew Miles said...

I can't tell you how much I have to deal with this. From family, from certain friends... Why am I not done with college yet? When are we going to have kids? What am I doing with my life anyway?

Usually the ones living by the checklist, taking little to no time to truly enjoy life for themselves, are usually the ones who take extra time out to tell people like me what's holding me back from living like them. They see not only the checklist for their life, but for everyone around them. Its an obsession.

Ironically, they pity you for not living life to the fullest, while you pity them for the same. The defining point for "life to the fullest" is what seperates us. I think that each person is scared for the other to some degree. Scared they are missing out, or that they won't make it.

For the one living by the checklist, this obsession comes perhaps with a flickering thought that maybe their checklist lifestyle is futile. To accept this would be to accept that much of their life has been wasted chasing things that matter little, if at all.

Does this fear drive their obsession to push the checklist onto others? To validate their own pursuits? Or are they genuinely convinced that the checklist is good, and push it out of genuine concern for those "goofing around" and "wasting their lives?"

I think, most likely, both types exist. And also those who live by the checklist simply because they do not know anything else. They have been taught nothing else, and perhaps have seen nothing else by example. Can their chains be broken? I believe so. I have seen it happen.