I had a birthday last week—it wasn’t a big one with a zero at the end, or even a half-hearted five but it did nevertheless feel like a landmark. A couple of people hummed When I’m Sixty-Four to me during the course of the day, and it was tempting to think that this must be the beginning of old age. But I quickly dismissed these thoughts as Paul McCartney was only fourteen when he penned the first version of the song, and what could he have known about ageing then. There was, though, something else about my new age that did rattle me. It was the knowledge that I am now just one year away from joining that final group on typical questionnaires and online forms—the catch-all, end-game 65+ category. It’s a sharp reminder that life is time-limited.
Recently, I read Joan Bakewell’s reflections on getting older—The Tick of Two Clocks—and was struck (unintended pun) by what she has to say about spending her life in a rush. Why am I always in such a hurry? she asks herself. What’s all the rush about? I’m rushing from one thing to another but all I’m doing is rushing to the end of me.
I completely relate to that and like Dame Joan, I have to wonder why I’m so intent on rushing rushing rushing to the end of me. Here’s an easy answer—many things are boring; get them done as quick as possible. But that can’t be right because the truth is that I rush through the tedious stuff so I can get onto the more interesting things. And…as soon as I get to them they redefine themselves as tedious, and so I hurry along to get to the more interesting things. It doesn’t make sense. I can’t even argue that I have a lot to do and must go fast to get it all done. There were many years when I was genuinely busy keeping all the family balls in the air but those days are gone. My time is largely my own—there is no compelling reason to rush.
I try another tack—I hurry because I like to get things done and squeeze in as much as possible; I enjoy being busy and being productive throws a rope bridge across what could be an empty void. Live deep and suck out all the marrow of life like Henry David Thoreau said. Ah…but I don’t remember him saying that you have to rush, retorts my rational side.
There may be no reasonable justification for incessant rushing but the question remains of whether it matters. It’s a deeply-ingrained habit, for sure. But is it a bad one?
It’s easiest to maintain the status quo but once I get started I can think of plenty of arguments against a hurry mindset. The first is that it makes me careless. Generally speaking this is not a good thing although there is one situation where it has its compensations. Mike complains that when I load the dishwasher it looks as though I’ve hurled things in from the other side of the kitchen, and they come out dirtier than when they went in. There’s an easy answer to that one—I just leave it to him. But the second drawback of rushing is that I squander the present moment. I forget to enjoy it because I’m always thinking about the next thing.
Then there’s the problem that rushing causes stress and that’s not good for anyone’s health. In the 1950s two cardiologists noticed that many patients presenting with cardiovascular disease were in a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time. They called it hurry sickness. It’s probably no coincidence that I’m uncomfortably familiar with migraines, insomnia and gastric reflux, and that these hangers-on have recently been joined by a new companion—hypertension. Fourth comes the problem of multi-tasking. Doing several things at once feels like it should be super-efficient but since you can only concentrate on one at a time you’re constantly juggling which is exhausting and not very effective. Fifth, rushing produces a feeling of shortage rather than satisfaction. There’s nowhere to go with the feeling that there’s not enough time—when you constantly fill it up with things to do then you’ll never get it all done. And sixth, rushing creates impatience and that’s not good for relationships.
There’s a seventh too—the impact on the next generation. “I think I take after you, Mum…” said Molly recently. I had a brief glow of maternal pride and then she said, “…I’m very slapdash.”
I’ve surprised myself with all these arguments against my rush, rush, rush mentality and I wonder whether you relate to this. But even if you’re of a calm, steady nature, I’m sure that you know people who hurry mindlessly. Because I’m definitely not alone—there’s a huge range of books, blogs, and podcasts all advocating the general principle of slowing down and being more intentional. I can see the benefits of serenity, and so I take the advice to focus on introducing just one change at a time. I try slow ironing…slow toothbrushing…slow walking…slow supermarket shopping…slow weeding…slow chatting…slow chewing…but none of it comes easily. They are all sabotaged by my insatiable itch to get onto the next thing. Then I discover something that is much more successful—slow showering. The warm water feels delicious, the soap smells fresh, and the shower tiles are rough under my feet like a Roman mosaic. I enlist an army of physical sensations to keep guard against the coming day as it tries to force its way in and at the end I pull the towel back and forth across my back. I think idly of a pig at a scratching post and finish by smoothing rose-scented body cream over my legs. It feels good to take care of myself and to remember to be grateful for this body that has served me well, producing four children, and carrying me around at top speed for decades with few complaints. My mind is quiet for a few minutes. I think this must be mindfulness. It’s a constant struggle, not squandering today by anticipating tomorrow. But it’s a start.