In Praise of Slowness

Can we still enjoy the little things?

“We must go slow like an old country train carrying peasant women dressed in black, like those who go on foot and see the world magically opening ahead, because going on foot is like leafing through a book while running is like looking at its cover. We must go slow and love the pauses that enable us to see the road we have covered, feel the weariness conquer our limbs like melancholy, and envy the sweet anarchy of those who invent their journey in a moment’s notice. We must learn to be on our own and wait in silence, happy, every so often, just to rest with out hands in our pockets. Going slow is bumping into dogs without running them over; it is naming trees, corners, and streetlights. It is finding a bench and entertaining our thoughts within, allowing them to surface according to the street we are on like bubbles that float upward and, when they are strong enough, allowing the to burst and mingle with the sky. It is to elicit involuntary rather than planned thought, the result not of goals or our will, but a necessary thought, the kind that emerges on its own, from an agreement between mind and world. Going slow is stopping on the promenade, on a shore, on polluted cliffs, on a hill burnt by the summer, going along with a boat’s wind and zigzagging to move forward. Going slow is to know the thousand differences in our lifestyle, the names of friends, the colours and the rains, the games and the wakes, the shared trusts and the slanders. Going slow are the stations in between, the stationmasters, the old luggage and the toilets, the gravels and small gardens, people waiting at grade crossings, an old cart and its young horse, a scarcity that is not ashamed, a public fountain, eyes hiding in the shade of the shutters. Going slow is to respect time, inhabit it with few things of great value, with boredom and nostalgia, with boundless desires sealed in one’s heart and ready to explode or pointed towards the sky because pressed by a thousand prohibitions. Going slow is to ruminate, imitating the infinite look of oxen, the patient wait of dogs. It is knowing how to fill one’s day with sunset, bread, and oil. Going slow means having an armoire for every dream, with big stories for little travelers and the applause of theaters for mediocre actors. It means a but worn out by an upward climb; desire expressed through looks; few words, and those capable of living in the desert; the disappearance of the multicoloured crowds of goods; and the renewed greatness of what is necessary. Going slow is being provincial without despair, sheltered from conceited history, inside pettiness and dreams, far away from the main scene and closer to every secret. Going slow is everyone’s ability to be a philosopher, living at a different speed, closer to beginnings and ends, where we experience life at its fullest, either as it begins or as we take leave from it. Going slow means thanking the world, allowing it to fill us up.”

This wonderful page by the sociologist Franco Cassano introduces us to his “Southern Thought” and is, in my opinion, one of the most provocative critiques of our current lifestyle. This thinker, from the Marche region of Italy, slips easily into that current of thought which believes it’s necessary to rescue slowness from the ravages of speed.

We inhabit an age absent waiting times. This has deep repercussions on our way of life. We no longer have the time to wait, we no longer know how to enjoy the little things, we cannot participate in a meeting or simply talk to a person without looking obsessively at our mobile phones. We want it all, now, in real time.

Professor Lamberto Maffei, president of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and former director of the Institute of Neuroscience of Italy’s National Research Council, tries to call us to order in a booklet entitled “In Praise of Slowness” (Il Mulino Editore). He leads us through the neurological mechanisms that induce us to excessive speed and presents, with a certain dose of nostalgic pessimism, the advantages of thinking slowly, of a way of thinking that follows the natural timelines of the brain. Maffei writes that “the desire to emulate the fast machines we created, so different to our brain that is a slow mechanism, arouses distress and frustration” and adds that “the predominance of rapid thinking, starting from what we express through the use of digital tools, may push towards erroneous solutions, damages in education and even public life”. Imagine a race run by middle-distance runners. All of a sudden everyone accelerates madly, as though they could instantaneously skip ahead to the finish line. Only one is left behind, isolated in dismay. We are those who run without brakes, out of synch with the speed of our bodies; it is the brain that reaches the finishing line, steaming ahead at full speed.

Maffei continues: “In a world swirling around with an often incomprehensible logic, the problem of slowness imposes itself on the mind with a certain arrogance, as a goal of thought and a path to travel. Going faster doesn’t mean knowing more than what the road has to offer, and nobody wants to arrive first to the end of their road. The modern world of haste, of constant travel, consumerism and technology leads to a social cynicism, which tends to consider the old as a burden into which it is not useful to invest economic resources.”

We can take the treadmill as an object more symbolic than any other of the social and existential conditions of our age. You run, you struggle, you sweat – smiling, perhaps – but in the end, you’re always there at the same point. This is the great paradox in which we find ourselves.

No hint of morals or nostalgia hides behind these arguments. The starting point of our critique is neuroscience itself and the way in which new neuroscientific discoveries allow us to read the complicated relationship between nature and culture. This carries along with it a surprising and illuminating twist: in an era of voracious, rhetorical scientism, science itself – necessarily a long slog through experimental method, the central value of which human progress through knowledge – risks being suffocated by the commodification of technology, typically expressed in the anxious need to constantly churn out new products for the market.

What, then, can be truly subversive today? Something simple, yet so simple that we might perhaps almost never think of it: WALKING. Yes. Going around on foot is perhaps one of the most revolutionary gestures of our time. We’re reminded of this by Erling Kagge, author of the best-selling book “Silence“. For the Norwegian, there’s no need to climb the world’s highest mountains or reach the poles. Anyone is able to escape the tyranny of speed, even in the city, by turning a simple experience into a magical and unforgettable adventure. All that’s needed is the desire to do this.

Walking, says Kagge, is good for body and spirit. Those who walk live longer and have better memory. Most importantly, walking helps us understand that: “legs come to think before our brains do, so it is possible to find answers to questions we did not even know to ask yet.” Walking imparts a sense of freedom and dilates time: as an action it is a slow and anarchic, especially when you take the wrong path and get lost. It means refreshing the body and coming to terms with one’s destiny, fleeing from a globalized and ultra-connected society that has made speed its idol.

However, Kagge believes that the most revolutionary aspect of walking is its ability to help us recover inner silence. Walking and silence are intimately connected. While silence is abstract, walking is concrete. This creates a double movement, internal and external, between the external landscapes of the world and the internal landscapes of the spirit.

The sense of walking lies, for Kagge – and perhaps for all walkers –, in this union between exterior and interior: “walking has made it possible for us to become what we are and, if we had to cease walking, we would also stop being ourselves.”

The “history of walking is the history of each of us”, as American writer and critic Rebecca Solnit points out in her legendary Wanderlust: A History of Walking : “Walking has been one of the constellations in the starry sky of human culture, a constellation whose three stars are the body, the imagination and the wide-open world “. This idea is again echoed by Erling Kagge: “Walking means seeing oneself, loving the earth and letting the body move to the rhythm of the soul”.

Perhaps the time’s arrived to say: enough running. Let’s start walking again.

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