Sunday, 26 April 2015

Are We Living Too Fast?

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The BBC’s Back in Time for Dinner, which concluded this week, was a surprise hit with me.

The story that leapt out at me was that of our growing compulsion to do everything faster. In the 1950s, Mum was virtually tied to the stove because everything took so long, what with the daily shop for still-rationed staples and all that boiling the flavour out. In the 1960s, the kids took off to embrace flower power, leaving Mum bewildered in the kitchen where, to achieve the flavour sensation of spaghetti bolognaise, she had to take a time-consuming trip to exotic Soho for garlic. Then came the 70s with their spectacularly empty promise:

‘With all these labour-saving devices, the only problem in future decades will be what to do with all the leisure time’.

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So, let’s see – how did that turn out? We decided to take the so-called ‘leisure time’ and pack more work into it, and the faster we could do things, the more we felt compelled to shoe-horn in. In the 80s came pre-packed sandwiches to eat at your desk – so no need to take a lunch hour and sit chatting with colleagues. Soon there was no time for family meals, as everyone did their own thing in the microwave and ate it in front of a screen. Only last night I caught the new Weetabix ad – they have invented a drink that contains all the benefits of a solid breakfast, whizzed up into a drink that you can sling down your neck while breaking the land speed record on the way to work. It gave me indigestion just watching it.

Now, I don’t want to be like the man who warned that that the speed of the newly invented steam train would cause people’s brains to explode.

 But what effect does this high-speed living have on our wellbeing?

With most people working full time, everything else we want from life has to be crammed in round the edges. We have become so busy that we no longer have time to think about what we want from life. The fact is that some things that are valuable take time. Writing, for instance involves a lot of staring into space before we can get on to the nippy speed-typing part.

This blog post could be really insightful, but let’s face it – you just want it to be quick. 

And so do I – I’ve got loads to do.

We want to be fit and well-read and involved and well-informed, and our bosses want us to produce stuff better and more efficiently than anyone else, and the only way to achieve all this in one lifetime is to do it all faster.

Our children start school in nappies, because no one has time for old-fashioned, thorough potty training, and we must start cramming education into them at four, or we’ll all get left behind. 

We harass them out of the house every morning for the nag-athon to school, then hassle them along to improving after-school clubs that fit in with our own busy lifestyles. We want everything for them: wellbeing, happiness, success – and we want it fast.

I have always been mystified by statistics that show us to be the most stressed generation ever known.

How can we be more stressed than the people who lived through the Blitz? 

Could this insatiable need for speed the reason?

My husband had a major breakdown a couple of years ago, caused at least in part by his job as a primary school Deputy Head. He was spending his days running from place to place addressing problem after problem, with no time to go into the staff room for a chat and no realistic chance of solving anything or actually completing a task. He ended up suffering from crippling anxiety and depression that took nine months and a major life rethink to cure.

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Even those of us who remain well could do with a rethink.

We yearn for inner peace or a lost sense of community, while being unbearably irritated by the motorist who delays us by twenty seconds, or that rare person with ‘time on their hands’ who wants to use up our priceless minutes chatting(?!) 

Even in the middle of doing something I love, that I have looked forward to, I sometimes find myself mentally ticking off the moment and thinking, ‘I must move on now to the next thing on the list’.

But does it have to be this way? 

The Back in Time for Dinner programme did offer some hope. In every decade, as lifestyles have changed, there have always been people who have thought outside the box and decided to do things differently.

To accept that ‘this is just the way things are’ is to accept a life that someone else has chosen for you. 

We have make our own choices – but it might mean looking the prevailing culture in the eyes and declaring that there is another way. It’s worth thinking about. Or would be if any of us have time.