Written by Nandita Batheja
Whether online or on city street signs, you probably encounter at least one invitation per day to slow down and self-care, whether through yoga or mindfulness or soothing beauty products or slow food joints. Perhaps some of your favorite cafes have no-computer-zones to protect the “ancient art” of face-to-face conversation. Maybe you have read the book Four Hour Work Week and caught on to the enticing idea of living more and working less. And maybe you have, more than once, entertained the thought of leaving everything to raise your family on a farm or by the ocean somewhere. Welcome to the Slow Living movement.
It’s all very appealing. Yet, as someone who often does much of the above (despite my distaste for trends), I’m left with an interesting dichotomy: these moments of slowing down offer me short respites from the chaotic world. But soon enough, I’m back in a whirlwind of stress with one million things to do and a pervasive sense of scarcity.
The narrative is increasingly familiar: the manufacturing age had Americans working an average of 100 hours per week by the late 1800s. The industrial revolution brought with it a fight to regulate working hours, but it also brought mass standardization and obsession with efficiency. It devalued individuality and shot down creativity. Instead, it encouraged speed, productionism, making MORE for LESS; it turned people into human Doings instead of human Beings.
In the Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff goes back even further to the Puritan settlers of the 1600s. He writes:
. . . the Puritans, practically worked themselves to death in the fields without getting much of anything in return for their tremendous efforts. They were actually starving until the wiser inhabitants of the land showed them a few things about working in harmony with the earth’s rhythms. Now you plant; now you relax. Now you work the soil; now you leave it alone. The Puritans never really understood the second half, never really believed in it. And so after two or three centuries of pushing, pushing, and pushing the once-fertile earth, and a few years of depleting its energy still further with synthetic stimulants, we have apples that taste like cardboard, oranges that taste like tennis balls, and pears that taste like sweetened Styrofoam, all products of soil that is not allowed to relax. We’re not supposed to complain, but There It Is.
Part of this nation’s colonial origin story is the founding belief that we should work until we can’t possibly do any more.
Build upon that for a few centuries, squash counter-culture revolutions, introduce technology that connects us 24/7 and enter an age of resource scarcity within a society that still values money and achievement above all, else, and it makes sense to land at this 21st century mentality of needing to do it all and do it now!
Collective energy is a real thing. If you’ve ever run downhill and tried to bring yourself to a halt, you have probably felt the strain of deceleration. It takes some time and requires a decent amount of energy to come to a stop. Now, imagine thousands of people running downhill at the same time and trying to stop yourself in the midst of that rushing crowd.
That is what it feels like to me to insist on Slow Living in New York City. The communal energy and internalized programming to produce produce produce is so strong that it almost wipes me out to step away and do something that is “unproductive.” Something that is not to be measured, sold, or put in a report. Something like—art. Something like—cooking daily with good friends. Something like—sitting with someone on the street. Something like—going for long, aimless walks.
But you know what else I’m not doing when I’m being unproductive? I’m not buying anything. I’m not getting take-out and unwrapping plastic wrapper after plastic wrapper. I’m not measuring myself as better or worse than anyone else. I’m not zoning out to a screen, and I’m not looking at people like they’re street-obstacles in a rush to get to Where I Need To Be.
What am I doing, then? I am connecting. I am discovering other sources of wisdom, knowledge, love, community. I am learning. I am growing my heart and my experience.
The Guardian reports that the 25 million year old Great Barrier Reef is in its last stages, with many of the corals already lost. It also recently published a story about how conservative leaders continue to deny climate change. Our cities are heating up and en route to more frequent and severe flooding.
Where are our children going to live? What world are we leaving them?
For a long time I thought of slowing down as a form of self-care. I needed it for my mental health. That is how I would justify it, and also why I often overrode it. I would think: well, it’s only serving me and the world is in great pain. I need to be doing more for others. Forget the slowness—there’s no time.
But the deeper into my change-work I get, the more I see that the two are inseparable. It is by slowing down that I contribute to the world. In an attempt to “do good”, I spend half my time adding to the environmental damage, the individualism and the crazed-productionism that causes the very things I am trying to deconstruct.
What would it look like if we slowed down as a society?
What would it look like if the first thing we reached for in the morning was not a phone, but the hand of the person (or cat…or flower…) next to us? What if our kids grew up in a culture where families cook together, where they share stories and resources with diverse community, spend afternoons in the park instead of at the mall? What if we all played more? How would it impact our internal sense of peace and abundance? And how might that radiate outward into our economic and political systems?
We are a recursive, responsive culture. If our demand for distraction, numbing, over-stimulation and ego-gratification decreases, the systems that feed off our vulnerable psychologies will weaken too. Maybe we will gain more leverage for ethical treatment of one another and this planet. Maybe more people will see why these are worthy things to fight for.
I don’t think this can be done alone; there needs to be a collective heaving. All of us on one side of the tug-of-war—pulling, holding on to our hope for a better world, for something beautiful to leave our children. It won’t be easy, but I believe it is possible. Ah, and how sweet it will be in that moment where we pull the rope just far enough, just across that line, and collapse in a heap of laughter, sweat, and relief.
Here’s to slowness. For our collective health, happiness and our shared earth.