Everyone is Dying: Should We Slow Down or Speed Up?


I have a great idea for the next time someone offhandedly asks, "Hey! How are ya?"

Say, "I'm dying."

You're bound to get a reaction. 

And in the large existential way, yes, you are. It's just a better reaction than "Good" or "Not bad" or "So, so busy."

Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center Omid Safi has found this question to be the opening of the floodgates for The Busy. In his article "The Disease of Being Busy" Safi explained how the exhausting, endless busyness of our lives is turning us from humans into machines, and it's our own fault. We've never as a people had more free time and yet we still fill that time with meaningless nonsense. 

Safi explains that in Muslim cultures, the saying is not "How are you?", it is essentially, "How is your haal?" or "How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” 

You could benefit a bit from this change of phrase. Your heart shouldn't be concerned with mounting email or how you're bouncing your children around from ballet to karate to baseball practice. Or as Safi puts it:

I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul. Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list.

Last week, I wrote something quite the opposite. And it had me thinking. I said The Bored among us are as good as dead. My prescription was action. To be fair, though, I want to be on the same page as Safi. When we're not using the time we have here to the best of our ability, we no longer exist. You can be boring by doing nothing or you can be boring by doing everything with no heart.

Shouldn't life mean something more than busying activities to fill the hours?

Jeremy Anderberg of The Art of Manliness blog made a similar point when rereading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club. He noticed the brutally honest self-reflection Tyler Durden forces the narrator to make in the book. Anderberg wrote:

"Tyler Durden knows that our knowledge of death is crucial to our growth: 'You will die, and until you know this you are useless to me.'

Once we know that someday we’re going to die — that with each passing day our remaining time on Earth is a little bit shorter — we’re more likely to actually do something meaningful with our life."

You would think coming to terms with death, as Durden prescribes it, would kick you into anxious high-gear, trying to cross endless items off a bucket list. But I think the opposite might need to be done. We really need to take some time to enjoy it all happening in front of us, not rush to get it all done.

Sometimes technology makes it easier to forget this. It is so fast and immediate. We can always keep working, keep searching, keep talking. We're always just a click or swipe away. It wasn't too long ago that writing someone a letter and praying it would arrive successfully was all you could do. Last week, This American Life told stories of pen pals and writing letters. Ted Widmer, a history professor at Washington College, contrasted the long-lost art of letter-writing to modern cell phones:

I think it's so easy to communicate that there's almost no reason to communicate anything of interest, you know? It's become like breathing. And if you listen to cell phone conversations on the train, it's always just, you know, monosyllables. Like hi, I'm here. Or I'll be there at 5:19 instead of 5:18. And it's the most boring verbiage you'll ever hear. 

When writing a letter, you needed to add something of meaningful substance. You wrote with your heart. Today, our substance is spread across endless communication constantly. Everyone can be up to date on what you report.

But sometimes, when everything we know has been said, it gets quiet and you can really get to know someone. 

Sometimes it takes some substances, sometimes it takes a weird late-night phone call. 

The idea here is just to strip away the nonsense. 

Be like Twitter. The social network gets a bad reputation for the dumbing down of messages, but research shows it has a higher lexical density than most email communication. In author Christian Rudder's words, it means that the "proportion of content-carrying words like verbs and nouns" is higher with Twitter than if you bang out an email.

You carve it down to the point. You force all the bits of your understanding into small, simple sentences, as best you can. You can put your heart in it. And Rudder paints a beautiful picture of Twitter in Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) when he explains it as, "Looking through the data, instead of a wasteland of cut stumps, we find a forest of bonsai."

And so how are we?

Sure, we're dying. It's okay.

There may not be all the time in the world, but there is just enough. There is time to slow down and there is time to speed up. Choose wisely.