By Rupert Swallow
Why are we all so busy? Our lives are ones of incessant motion. Like bees in a busy hive we buzz from one thing to the next in an exhausting whirlwind of industry. The constant refrain I hear is “I’ve got so much to do”, “There’s a lot on today” and “Can we do later? I’m just too busy right now”.
Before we become tearily nostalgic over some rapturous vision of a prelapsarian time when our lives were slower and more simple, we should realise that people have had these same concerns for at least the past two centuries. Since Blake penned his immortal lines about the ‘mind forg’d manacles’ and ‘furnace of [the] brain’ of the new Industrial Age in his Songs, the pace of life has been steadily increasing. It is important to realise that these kind of reflections have been variously figured. At the turn of the twentieth century, while the Futurists celebrated the dynamism increasing industrialisation implies, others such as Kant conversely, and more pessimistically, saw mass mechanization and increasing urbanisation as separating Man from Nature and creating a dysgenic species of automatons. One can also see, in the work of the Primitivists and in Kandinsky’s apocalyptic landscapes, all sorts of dire prophecies about the future.
With the advent of telephones, the internet and social media, these fears are often exacerbated to the nth degree. It is easy to see why. FB messenger, by logging the time since we were last active, has created a culture in which we are constantly on call, constantly waiting for the next ping to remind us what’s up next in our digital calendar, a culture in which it is worrying not to reply within four hours, let alone a whole day. Whether this rapid pace of life is ultimately beneficial to us is, however, beside the point. I have just returned from a month in India, a country we in the UK recognise as developmentally inferior (whatever that means). In India, people are no less busy (try crossing any road and the auto-rickshaw drivers will soon make you sure of that fact) and yet the pace of life is far, far slower. Busy-ness does not exactly equate to brisk pace of life. It is the contrast between what we are doing and our mindset as we do it. The really pertinent point is that we in the UK are all in a perpetual state of motion. This is more the case in London than in sleepy Durham but it often seems the experiments about perpetual motion machines Da Vinci started in the 15th Century have reached their apotheosis in 21st Century man. In fact
So, what are the implications of this unending struggle (as it so often seems) against the rip and tug of modern life? Do we enjoy being immersed in all this ‘doing’, or does it instead feel rather like drowning? The Bible is actually helpful here. Vs. 12:12 of Ecclesiastes, ‘Much work is a weariness of the flesh’, suggests that we should gain some perspective on the matter, lift our heads above the choppy waters to see where, if anywhere at all, we are heading on the vast sea of life. This kind of perspective is often difficult to gain since raising one’s head above the waves implies paddling harder in order to do so. We are all so involved in our own lives it can be difficult to see the waves for the sea. In this respect the sense of relativity which permeates the consciousness of the subcontinent is admirable. Recently, I was talking to an Indian about the problem of money. He had recently broken his wrist falling off his motorcycle. I said that money had saved him because he could afford to have the best healthcare. “Ah,” He returned to me, quick as a flash, “but had I been poor I would never have had the money to ride a motorcycle!” These kind of insights, when they come at all, are few and far between in the West.
That said, no single thing can admit of every excellence; perhaps what we lose in relativity we gain in productivity. Brutus says ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune’; in this pacey modern culture we must beware of being too idle to take a chance when it comes. We often cannot afford to, like Hamlet, let the ‘native hue of resolution’ become ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’. Eminem echoes a similar thought in his anthem ‘Lose Yourself’, which proves pretty much beyond all reasonable doubt that this idea is important to us now.
Perhaps, on reflection, we can take solace in the fact that the ‘problem’ (as it is so often seen) of our rocketing pace of life is not unique. It is one which has been experienced for the last two hundred years and is being experienced in our own time by everyone around us. Realising this, and also that there is value in living this way, are powerful means of coming to terms with our often hectic and demandingly accelerated lifestyles. As Fitzgerald almost said, ‘So we all beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly, and pretty fast.’
Photograph by Pixels via Creative Commons