A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an article in National Geographic about the longest train ride through India. You know how every now and then you read something that triggers some awakening in your mind, as if the author had composed his language solely for you? To me this article was so arrestingly beautiful, so beautifully phrased, and so poignant that it seemed personal.
Bear with me here through some excerpts.
Beneath the relentless churn of steel, wood, and dust, the Indian railway is made entirely of stories. For more than a century, it has witnessed the infinite expression of the human condition, borne the incalculable weight of separations, and gently rocked the world-weary into oblivion…
“People want time,” Paley says. “We live in a world that wants to compress time and make things faster and faster, and I love the train because it’s an environment where you have to slow down.”
This unflinching engagement is fundamental to slow travel, which places value on quality of interactions with local cultures over the rapid acquisition of passport stamps. This ideal hearkens back to the Romantic belief that preoccupation with the future corrupts the present journey.
Scientists agree that industrialized societies are experiencing a paradoxical “time famine”—the persistent feeling that we have too much to do, and not enough time to accomplish it—and that this interferes with our ability to savor immaterial experiences. We’re doing everything faster, but we don’t feel like we have more free time.
Gorgeous, yeah? The writing, certainly, but also the concepts: slow time, avoiding a preoccupation with the future, savoring the present. Wait, what? Savoring the present? Who the hell savors the present?
The present and I are engaged in an epic life-or-death struggle in which I am trying to raise some kids, love on my husband, write a new book, promote the old book, write a weekly article or three, read a bunch of books, write a bunch of book reviews, do some doctoring, do some volunteering, maintain a household, fill out 1000 daily school-and-sports-related computer forms, and argue with giant time-sucking corporations. The present, cackling like a drunk cartoon hyena, is actively trying to murder me.
Now here’s the tricky part of this post. I have (finally!) enough disposable income to buy myself more time. That’s an actual thing, and unlike buying stuff, it’s good for you. In a surprise to absolutely no one, scientists have determined that buying time actually makes you happier.
Sometimes I hire people to help me when I can afford it and justify it, even if it means not buying something else. (Um. Not to go off topic, but I realize even mentioning this highlights that the world is monstrously unfair in resource distribution. I’ll offer this mitigation: I worked years of 110-hour weeks—days and nights around the clock, sacrificing sleep and fun and a normal young adulthood—to get where I am now in life. Still, hard work and the opportunity for economic security do not go hand-in-hand in our world.)
When you get right down to it, however, I am still working 120-hour weeks. I have cut back my doctoring in favor of writing, and even though I outsource some mundane stuff, if you tally up my leisure-time moments versus my obligation-driven moments, there’s no contest. Obligation spanks leisure every time. Why is that?
Well, part of it is the inbred industriousness that’s part of my national DNA. Americans are notorious overworkers, some of us because we’re forced to and some of us because we can’t help ourselves. My busyness is largely self-inflicted. Nobody forced me to be a doctor. Nobody is forcing me to be a writer. I don’t know that anyone even wants me to be a writer, except for maybe my agent. People are forcing me to fill out forms and wait on hold and some of the other stuff that no one in their right mind could ever savor, but even if I gave up working tomorrow, I am pretty sure I’d fill up the extra time in no time. We are just not a society of savorers.
That being said, I took stock of my life while writing this article and here’s what I figured out. My work-life balance is good. I am happy. I work my ass off as a parent and a wife and a writer and a doctor and I love doing it. Am I stressed? Well, yeah. I lose my cool just about every day, but part of that is my excitable personality/lack of self-control/the fault of the cable company. And now, at this stage in my life, I finally am starting to slow time when I can to savor the good stuff.
I’m in New York City at the moment to meet with my agent and my publishing people. Last night, ignoring some work I needed to do, I took myself to dinner at this amazing Greek restaurant, and I had the slowest dinner. I ordered some good bourbon, fired up my Kindle, and read and drank and ate and thought. The book I read was excellent. The food was so delicious I might have made some little moaning noises from time to time. The experience of being by myself in the world’s most vibrant city, enjoying an exquisite meal, with no one to please and nowhere to be, turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of my life. Slow time, y’all.