Monday, December 3, 2007

The National Hamster Wheel

Compared to the last 3000 years of documented civilization, our American culture runs at nearly the speed of light. We are obsessed with the instantaneous "now," and we seem, in general, to have lost both all tolerance for waiting and the virtue of patience.

Only warp speed will do for us in every instance, and our impatience has warped our relationship to natural time. Do these sound familiar?
  • Internet connections - fast, faster, fastest, please.
  • Immediate communication by texting, faxing, phoning, emailing.
  • Global jet travel in a day.
  • Overnight delivery service to/from anywhere.
  • Drive-through coffee, meals, laundry, funeral homes and churches.
  • "Slow" lanes of traffic racing at 75 mph.
  • Digital technology displaying photos in one nanosecond.
  • Instant music via downloads, instant Googled information on any subject, instant location via GPS.
  • "Vacations" that take us to 7 countries in 10 days and leave us confused, lagged, exhausted (and broke).
I'm surprised we haven't yet found a way to shorten pregnancy, like dry cleaning, to one-hour Martinizing gestations..(probably some researcher is hard at work on this, too).

I have to wonder how much of the beauty and wonder of Life we miss by living at this breakneck pace. How can we savor the joy or learn from the pain of each experience if we've moved onto the next before we've reflected on and assimilated THIS one?

Certainly in America we've reduced the pleasure of sweet anticipation to a flash and a flurry of to-do lists. Actually, in the case of the Christmas season, we've become so impatient that the celebration itself pre-empts the time of anticipation.

I've done my share of complaining about the Catholic church (notably HERE), but this is one facet of life they've gotten right. The church year is divided into liturgical seasons, each with its allotted time, purpose and flavor. This past Sunday marked both the beginning of the church year and the start of the season of Advent -- four Sundays of thoughtful and prayerful preparation before Christmas -- NOT to be confused with the 20+ remaining shopping days.

We all know that our American Christmas celebration (or holiday season, if you prefer) has become an orgiastic exercise in decorating/buying/giving/singing/partying that has little to do with any religious celebration. In fact, any religious connection is officially and vehemently prohibited by all levels of government -- rightly or wrongly. Just as the ancient winter solstice celebration was co-opted by the Christian Christmas, that season of celebration has been twisted and tortured into the Festival of Spending and Santa so dear to our national heart.

Our calendars are so filled with activities this time of year that by necessity we begin to celebrate "Christmas" immediately after Thanksgiving in order to fit everything in...(and Thanksgiving tumbled into our lives still dressed in Halloween costume, which fell into our laps right after Labor Day, which exploded from the sky the fifth of July, which was still colored red, white and blue from Memorial Day, when we were still eating leftover Cadbury bunny eggs....). To be sure, this frantic pace is fueled by retail marketing and a ravenous economy, but we fall in line like the good little credit-card-wielding robots we all are... and whatever meaning each holiday contains is reverenced for a full five minutes before we turn to the next. (Does the "day after Christmas sale beginning at 5 a.m." OR "buy a new car for the New Year" ring a chime with you?) In traditional terms, there really ARE 12 days of Christmas, 40 days of Lent, 50 days of Easter, and these four beautiful weeks of Advent.

To my knowledge, every major world religion -- and most of the contemporary, trendy feel-good, I-love-ME spirituality/pseudo-philosophies -- center around or at least include in their practice some form of meditation, contemplation, prayer or thoughtful silence. Whether these movements encourage union with an Other, with the "universe," with our own subconscious or linty little navel, the purpose is certainly to withdraw for a time FROM time and reflect on Someone/something deeper than the hamster wheel that is our life.

Short-term and long-term memory differ greatly in physiologic function and results and are still under investigation. My friend Wikipedia has a few interesting things to say about it HERE.

Briefly, short-term memory, our "working" memory, has very limited capacity and really IS short in duration (under a minute). It is used as both a collection point for new data and the retrieval mechanism for old data. Long-term memory requires "the process of rehearsal and meaningful association." In other words, we need to both anticipate an event then reflect on our experience of it in order to preserve it.

In my view, we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated to "live in the now" that we've lost touch with the thrill of anticipating the future. We're so eager to turn to the next event that we rarely have time to savor what we just experienced. We've come to rely on home video and thousands of photos to serve as our memories, instead of letting each lovely minute gently build a permanent mosaic of sight, sound, scent and scene -- with those stories of remembrance passed on to succeeding generations. Instead of creating that permanent mosaic, however, we're settling for a kaleidoscope of fleeting impressions that will fade all too soon, leaving only a flicker of colored light behind.

This refusal to anticipate and reflect doesn't apply to only the celebrations of our American culture but also to our refusal to learn from history -- to think that we are each inventing ourselves, our life, moment by moment, disassociated from anything previous and giving nothing to those who toddle in our footsteps. I see our culture as trying to consciously break its bonds with our collective past and unkown, risky future in favor of the new and the now.

One of the most obvious and hackle-raising cliches from the sixties is "stop and smell the roses." Even Ringo Starr sang (badly) about it HERE. It may be the phrase with the most overworked 20 letters in the English language, but it also contains one of the most powerful and enduring concepts of our human past and future.

So...happy Advent. Stop and smell the pine, the cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, and think for a minute (or hour) what this season may mean to you. Slow down your own little hamster wheel and remember past holidays -- the good and the bad of them -- and anticipate whatever joy you expect to find in this one to come.

I'm forced by my family's calendars to celebrate an early grandkids' Christmas party this Friday, but I promise I'm putting away my hamster wheel just as soon as those dishes are done.

1 comment:

annie kelleher said...

i frequently am astounded by the dissonance between what our culture tells us we should do at this time of year and what nature shows us we should be doing. may your holidays be laidback! :)

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