But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads? ~Albert Camus
I’M NOT A MOVER AND SHAKER. I’m not a go-getter, a quick study, or an eager beaver. I don’t enjoy playing hard ball, breaking the mold, or living on the edge. I’m not gregarious, outgoing, or especially enthusiastic. Speed, in all its glory, is not one of my defining characteristics. I much prefer slowness. I think slowly. I walk slowly. When I’m at my best, I breathe slowly. I drive slowly and I talk slowly. I read slowly. I write slowly. And as a middle-aged father of two boys, I’m told I run very, very slowly. Slowness is my natural and most comfortable state of being.
Modern life however is not slow. It operates with the efficiency and indifference of a central processing unit, esteemed solely for its ability to compute inputs into outputs at lightening speed. In such an environment, my genetic predisposition for slowness is quite a liability. Add to that my affinity for solitude, stillness, calm, and quiet, and I’ve often felt like I’m on a Los Angeles speedway traveling by way of rickshaw. I must say, however, that I have made a genuine and largely successful effort to keep up with the speed racers. But the depressive episodes of my Bipolar 2 disorder have intensified over the past year forcing me off the track and out of the race. In spite of my deep spiritual and psychological need for slowness, calm, and solitude, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in a fast-paced, hectic, and crowded professional setting. An incongruity endured at the price of mental health.
Sitting quietly doing nothing,
Spring comes, grass grows of itself.
“Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I would add speed as another oppressive standard of modern life. In our perverse focus on ever-increasing levels of production and consumption, we’ve devalued slowness, stillness, and introversion to the point of near extinction. Surrendering to conformity and adult peer pressure, I’ve spent my professional life doing work that has been less than meaningful (for me, that is). I’ve done this work in the name of keeping up, of wanting to live in a nice house, a nice neighborhood, with two cars, a big television, iPhones, iPads, and club sports for the kids. I wasn’t happy, fulfilled, or even content, but the idea of quitting was terrifying. I was afraid of losing the material comforts we had so tirelessly earned. I was terrified of shaking the volatile self-esteem that had been wrought by facing down a childhood of poverty and dysfunction. I was afraid that if I stepped off the conveyor belt, abandoning the conformity of the race, my life would spiral downward into poverty and public humiliation. So I trudged on, denying my deep need for slowness, competing in a race I didn’t really care to win. As a result, I developed an uncomfortable sense of alienation from those I loved and from myself. For years, my biggest fear had been that I would wake up one morning without the ability to continue the race. Ironically, it was the very race that stopped me.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
Living slowly, stepping off the race track, is changing my perception of the world for the better. The way forward, while absolutely uncertain, appears far less threatening when I make a commitment to living genuinely with ease and at a gentle pace. There is great relief in knowing that I can trust myself and that, barring the need to save a life or protect another from injury, I will never intentionally place myself in harm’s way. Like everyone else, I was born with a set of genes that, for better or worse, contain many physical, mental, and emotional traits that are more or less fixed. In the interest of conformity, I could continue the attempt to disown my genetic slowness, but it would be like asking my eldest son to disregard his nearly six foot frame and aim for a career as a jockey. The reality is that my genetics, Bipolar 2 disorder, and personal history have been marvelously built for slowness. And in my characteristic gradual manner, I’ve gratefully accepted this reality, my reality, that slow and steady ends the race.