Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

For as long as I can remember, my family has vacationed along the Oregon Coast. My early memories are filled with hot sun and sand dunes, the smell of sunscreen for freckle-faced me and a tanning oil for my mother. Being from the modest metropolis of Portland, my family joined hundreds of others who flocked each summer to the Coast. My mother shares stories of summers spent there with her entire extended family, Yiddish-speaking grandmothers and all. What’s most striking, looking back at our family’s time together at the beach, is a foggy recollection of my step-father’s brown leather briefcase. I recall its entry into our small beach retreat, and that it often lay next to the dining room table unopened all weekend. My step-father was and still is a workaholic. At 81 he continues to work full time at the accounting firm that he built. His name still graces the door of the growing firm and I swear, every tax season the man stays late, right alongside his junior counterparts – eating the same Chinese take-out and drinking the same stale coffee. But during those retreats to the beach, from Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon, my workaholic father unplugged, before unplugging was even a thing!

This is not to say that he wasn’t busy! His leisure time was hard-earned and well-spent. Tennis, golf, bike rides, brunch dates, and dinner dates with our closest family friends: we were busy people in our down time, and work was hardly a thought when we were at play. I recall my mother sighing on the drive back to town at the prospect of returning to the mundane tasks of everyday life, and my own feelings of sorrow upon leaving that beachy playground behind. (My mother’s brief case, by the way, was smaller and more chic, if I recall; but it accompanied us those weekends as well. She was always better at leaving it in the car.)

This past June our family reunited for a beach vacation of a more tropical variety. My father’s brief case was happily absent, as we embarked upon a week of unfettered rest and relaxation – only, I noticed that I was having difficulty unplugging. With every new email alert I could feel myself itching to swipe open my phone and see what was happening – who needed me – what was I missing – was I missed? The thought of removing myself entirely from temple was a difficult one, despite the white sand beaches just steps outside of my front door, despite the smiling sunburnt faces of my nieces and nephews, despite even the fruity drinks with umbrellas in them. I felt that I needed to stay connected with my responsibilities, for fear of missing out, of being forgotten or of being made obsolete. While I knew that vacation time would be more beneficial if I relaxed fully in to it, the anxious hamster in my head just refused to get off of that wheel.

Our world is moving faster than our little feet can carry us, and yet we still run our fastest to keep up. Psychiatrist and author, Stephanie Brown, speaks of this problem in her book, Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster – and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down. She refers to this trend as a “culture-wide phenomenon, that’s snatching people up and carrying them along, convincing [us] that doing ‘more, better and faster’ is the path to happiness.” i But this speed comes with a price – we are seeing that such a fast pace is causing real damage to us as a society and as individuals; in Brown’s own words, “we can’t slow down for the curves and we are crashing.”ii She offers some questions for us to ask ourselves to understand how hooked we are on “fast” – take a minute to think of your own answer to the following questions:
“Do you believe stress is the price of success and that chaos is normal?”
“Do you believe that … less time for [nurturing] relationships is the price of success?”iii

Many of us live beneath the weight of such beliefs, caught between the warring tides of success and happiness. I have been fascinated recently by the surge in happiness studies, and the widening conversation about how we interact with, and create our own happiness. In my research on both happiness and this cultural addiction to the fast-paced life, I came across references to the uniquely American flavor of this quest for ‘more, better, faster’. Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that propels us as a nation on the quest for the next best thing, the good life, the golden ring of happiness, seems to actually be at the heart of these challenges that we face today. Dr. Brown asserts that this “same belief in human power was a cornerstone in the founding of America and it continues to be central to [our] country’s values and character. If [we’re] not in control [we’re] failing.”iv Our quest for success as Americans is rooted in the very fabric of our society. It is the twin sister of the Protestant work-ethic upon which our country was built; the understanding that we can each pull ourselves up by our bootstraps if only we work hard enough and set our minds to it. These philosophies served our country well for over a hundred years, but it appears that we may be attempting to manifest our destiny at a faster pace than we can handle. Happiness studies speak of the notion of a Hedonic Treadmill, the never-ending cycle of desire-and-acquire that fuels our culture. I’m the first to recognize it within myself, the drive that can be both generative and destructive if left unchecked. This foundation of Manifest Destiny “has turned the American virtues of hard work and endurance into nonstop action and chaos,”v that has, in turn, led us to a place of dichotomous thinking: either we’re ahead or we’re behind, either we’re successful or not. We are rapidly turning ourselves into a culture that declares all-or-nothing as the only way to be.

For examples of this runaway train we need look no further than the social commentary created by one of our best cultural mirrors – television. My husband and I are avid consumers, binge watching our way through season after season of compelling TV drama. In preparing for this sermon it struck me that many of the protagonists of our favorite television series follow this same pattern of ‘more, better, faster.” From The Shield’s hard-working-but-corrupt cop, Vick Mackey, to Big Love’s hard-working-but-polygamist husband, Bill Hendrickson, to Ray Donovan, Hollywood’s hard-working-but-emotionally-crippled henchman. Each of these shows amounts to a cultural cautionary tale of impossibly busy individuals scrambling to put out fires left and right first in their professional lives, and ultimately in their personal lives, as their families suffer from these characters’ obsessions with power and control – for more, better, faster.

In her practice as a psychiatrist and addiction counselor, Dr. Brown has noticed that we are “out of control in [our] push to do more, to always be on and available, and to never say ‘no.’”vi Brown writes:

“we are suffering. Many [of us] suffer from stress so intense that it impairs [our] immune systems, contributes to heart attacks, strokes … and speeds up the aging process. Stress destroys marriages and tears families apart. Long-term stress can even re-wire the brain, leaving us more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.”vii

The stress compounds when we try to make everyone happy; we feel guilty when we’re not with our families, and guilty when we’re not working. There is a standard of success that we feel the need to achieve and that many of us can’t live up to without working and worrying ourselves to the edge of exhaustion.viii And worst of all, we are spreading this sickness to our children.

If our children are our future, then our teens are our present: to observe the trends and tendencies of adolescents is to hold up a mirror to our own patterns of behavior. Our teens are growing up in a world where “stressed out” is becoming a normal part of teenage vernacular.ix If we ourselves are stretched thin, attempting to be everywhere and everything at once, then imagine the messages that our teens are receiving from us. A recent study of individuals across generations shows that two out of ten 16-17 year olds feel as though they are already behind, compared to where they thought they would be at the young age. Already behind?! Sixteen and seventeen is the age at which we are supposed to feel that we are just beginning, that the path is only just unfolding in front of us – not that we’re already left in the dust! From her practice, as well as current studies of our youth, Brown writes:

“[we are already seeing an] alarming increase in stress-related disorders of all kinds for all ages, beginning for many young, elementary school-age children who are struggling with obesity, depression, anxiety, attention disorders, and all kinds of learning disabilities. The exhausting fast pace of life promotes over-scheduling and overstimulation, which become chronic stressors. These lead to behavior and attention disorders.”x

A Stanford study concluded that going fast is not good for kids: that it leads to similar problems, all of which are rapidly becoming a normal part of teenage life.xi Brown cautions us against treating these presenting disorders without linking them to the “underlying stress that causes or contributes to them.”xii We are failing to see the root of our problems, instead, treating the symptoms.

This failure of ours reminds me of a story: There once was a little town struggling to keep its children from falling in to the river that rushed through it. When child after child was rescued from near-death in the river, the townspeople decided to create an elaborate alarm system to notify rescuers whenever a child would inevitably fall and be carried away by the current. Bells and whistles, and pulley systems and first responders were organized to rescue the children of the town, but they kept falling into the river, many carried away, never to be seen again. One day, a traveler passed through the town in the aftermath of such a loss. When he heard the townspeople’s story, he asked the gathering crowd, “How are the children getting in to the river?” The people responded, “We do not know! We’ve set up barriers and fences all along the length of the town! It’s a mystery to us!” The traveler asked, “Has anyone thought to look up stream? Perhaps the children aren’t falling in here, but farther upstream?” Excited by the prospect of a solution to their problems, the townspeople swarmed around the traveler and carried him with them upstream where, lo and behold, miles and miles of enticingly rugged river banks lay unguarded, just waiting for the next child to tumble in.

We are at a moment in time when we need to look upstream; to acknowledge that our cultural need for speed is negatively affecting both us and our youth. A glance through the Sunday New York Times editorial section over recent months shows a significant number of articles warning us against the demands of our fast-pace – for both us and our children. Among my favorites is an article that appeared this past July titled, “All Children Should Be Delinquents.”xiii The author, a professor at the United States Naval Academy, argues that our kids are running out of time and room to explore on their own. He regales the reader with tales of his own childhood, “getting lost in ragtag gatherings of kids, [playing] afternoon-long basketball games and twilight sessions of kick the can”xiv In particular, the author remembers one summer spent romping around in a virtual Matterhorn of rocks and dirt that had been excavated at a nearby construction site. His memories range from the idyllic to the nail-bitingly-risky but he asserts that “much of [his] very worst behavior flooded [him] with wild, unfamiliar feelings – feelings that, in lasting ways, mapped the outer limits of [his] ethics.”xv His ultimate argument is that these great expanses of free, unstructured time are actually what taught him and his peers to learn right from wrong.

In her second book, The Blessing of a B Minus, clinical psychologist and parent educator Wendy Mogel writes of the challenges of raising what she calls resilient teenagers. The Blessing of a B Minus draws upon Jewish teachings to help parents navigate the unique challenges of the teen years. Mogel writes that “ordinary is no longer good enough,” for many parents, who might consider their children to be “walking billboards of [their] family’s priorities.” She cautions against treating our youth “as if they are projects to be developed and packaged for inspection.”xvi This mentality of perfection, scarcity, and ‘more, better, faster’ that we perpetuate amongst ourselves as adults has inevitably seeped in to the next generation’s childhood experience. Mogul warns us that raising adolescents with such a worldview turns our fresh-faced teens “into permanently anguished, disconnected thirty-five year olds.”xvii These are exactly the forces that we combat here in our Wednesday Night Teen Program as we create a safe space, absent of achievement-oriented goals. Each week, for two and a half hours, our teens come together in this space to unplug, detach from their devices, and engage with one another in a space of their own. Our teens need a sanctuary in their lives that isn’t about getting the best grades, or working hardest, but where the goal is to connect with one another and be supportive. This work is the heart of community – to return to the center of our own gravity lest we spin out of control going it alone.

So how do we change from a society addicted to ‘all or nothing’ thinking to one that finds a “healthy middle ground … [without] giving up on progress and … the best of American ideals?”xviii Brown suggests that such a task requires us to form “healthy attachments and [cultivate] sound mutual relationships, while making community a priority.”xix These are the messages of Yom Kippur, a day intended to acquaint us with our very human limitations. We confront the reality that we need food and water to survive and thrive. We come together in community to support one another as we confront the limits of our own mortality. Our prayers on this Day of Atonement remind us of the mistakes that we have made, and urge us to set them aright. It is through the rituals of prayer, fasting, and contemplation that we arrive at a deeper understanding of our human limitations, and the vast timelessness of our tradition, our people, and indeed our Creator.

Dr. Brown prescribes similar interventions in our return to a more reasonable pace of living: ritual, deeper human connections and allowing ourselves to feel emotion provide the cure for an out-of-control life. But as we know, making change is some of the hardest work we have to do. According to one Midrashxx only twenty percent of Jews followed Moses out of Egypt. The other eighty percent were too habituated to their lives, too fearful to unburden themselves and flee toward freedom.xxi Similarly it was reported that only a small minority of Jews returned from the Babylonian exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It is a profoundly human tendency to stick with “the devil you know,” but it is precisely in moving forward and facing the unknown, in acknowledging the limits of our own capacities that we can ultimately manage to live a life of meaning.

My father’s brown leather briefcase has been replaced by a smart phone, and the rate at which we are required to function has dramatically increased – but our need for slow, for quiet, for rest and recreation has remained the same. Leaving the metaphorical briefcase by the door in our time is even harder, and we have to be even more intentional about creating the space to unplug, rest, and reflect. We must take time to be with the ones we love, and really be with them. Set boundaries for ourselves in our work lives, and try to leave work at the office - to be still. When we are all-fast, all the time, we give ourselves no room for creative insights that come from a still, quieted mind. Our biggest problems will continue to plague us if we fail to make the space in our lives to get back to center, to get back to self, to ask who we really are and what we are really doing with our lives. If we live with a disease of limitlessness,xxii and the alphabet of woes that I have described certainly point to such a disease, then the answer is to return to some of the truths that have sustained us as Jews for centuries; slow down, be present, love and live and give – and then do it all again, but even more slowly.

 

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i Brown, Stephanie, Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster – and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2014 (p. 4)
ii Ibid, p. 33
iii Ibid, p. 19
iv Ibid, p. 9
v Ibid, p. 45
vi Ibid, pp 6-7
vii Ibid, p. 34
viii Ibid, p. 49
ix Ibid, p. 13
x Ibid, p. 51
xi Ibid, p. 52
xii Ibid, p. 51
xiii Beckham, John. “All Children Should Be Delinquents” The New York Times [New York], 13 July 2014
xiv Ibid
xv Ibid
xvi Mogul, Wendy. The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers. New York: Scribner, 2010(p. 10)
xvii Ibid, p. 15
xviii Brown, p. 35
Ibid
xx Tanhuma, Parshat Beshallach
xxi Morinis, Alan. Reform Judaism Magazine, August 2014
xxii Wendell Berry, from Brown p. 38