In Praise of Slow

In my twenties, I was a Master’s student in the University of Toronto’s Medieval Studies program (having realized the intense market demand for medievalists—ha!).

I discovered that I studied at the same library that housed a truly ambitious project, the Dictionary of Old English, which was in the process of documenting every known use of every word in the Old English language for future generations of scholars.  Like medieval monastics, the compilers of the dictionary gathered in their scriptorium atop U of T’s flagship Robarts Library and laboured for hours, sifting through obscure texts that most people have never heard of, in search of words. When I graduated in the spring of 2000, the project, begun nearly twenty years previously, had just published the letter E.

Two weeks ago, a friend sent me a notification that the dictionary committee was pleased to present its latest published letter: H.

Sixteen years; three letters.

The scope and dedication involved in this project is clearly impressive, but its unhurried speed is something I find truly remarkable. Like the builders of the great cathedrals of Europe or the pyramids of Egypt, many of the dictionary workers may not live to see the project completed. Still, they continue offering their time, energy and intellect to a project greater than their own individual contributions.

No matter what is going on in the fast-paced city that surrounds them, these folks are okay with slowness.

To me, they are heroic.

It goes without saying that we live in a world addicted to speed. You can hear it in our speech patterns, see it in our well-documented shorter attention spans, and in the proliferation of fast food. From faster internet service to shorter wait times for this or that service—the world of advertising caters to our desire for instant gratification.

In a world of speed, is there still room for the slow? And if the answer is no, what will we have lost?

A lot, I think.

  1. Our health: We all know that a fast food diet is capable of shortening our lives, and that many of the convenience foods we eat lack the nutrition of their home-cooked equivalents. The slow food movement offers an alternative that is really just a return to the sane eating of our human past. Slow food doesn’t have to be complicated; tools like the slow cooker do a lot of the heavy lifting for us on busy weeknights. I think of food as preventative medicine, and the time I invest in preparing it is similar to money invested in health insurance.
  2. Our outlook on life: It’s a well-documented fact that exercise improves mood; emerging evidence, however, points out that extreme exercise (ultra marathons, repeated Ironman/woman triathlons) can be as hard on the heart as eating a whole lot of junk food and never exercising. Sounds like another symptom of society’s constant state of motion, from 24-hour-a-day shopping to never-creasing TV news cycles.
  3. Our sense of perspective: Practitioners of mindfulness often reference a paradigm that seems alien in a world obsessed with productivity: “Being, not doing.” I’m reminded of it when my kid asks me to stop making supper or checking the internet to read him a story, or just hang out with him on the couch while he tells me stories. It’s hard to stop what we’re doing and experience the timelessness of “being in the moment.” The Cult of Busy may make us feel as though our every moment must be dedicated to being productive, that is, doing something for the sake of being busy. I often wonder what we are trying to achieve as we hurtle toward burnout. A career goal? A sense of self-worth, or fitting in with the rest of our busy acquaintance?

There is no doubt that the world of work, environmental and social ills, and family life present us regularly with pressing demands that tax our mental resources and our time.

I’m still hoping that we can hold sacred the times when we allow ourselves to “go slow”: on walks, with a good book, during a board game with those we love. Our lives are built on slow.

For a beautifully-filmed explanation of the Old English Dictionary project and its massive scope, have a peek at this two-minute YouTube video: