This is Part II of a three-part series. It picks up from Part I: Downshifting: An Introduction to Slow Words Wisdom
Slow Words Wisdom is more than merely “slowing down,” though slowing down is a good starting point. It’s disconnecting from the things that separate us from ourselves and others and reconnecting with the things that kindle appreciation of life’s simple pleasures. It’s awareness of our own physical and emotional needs, choosing pathways to finding common ground with others rather than division. It’s establishing a relationship with our environment where nature is not something we escape into, but part of home and everyday life.
By making a conscious effort to move less frantically, the pace of life around us slows down too. It takes nail-biting effort to drive slower, especially when someone is tailgating you to go faster. It seems insane to take the scenic route home when there is a more direct, faster way. It takes willpower to linger over a meal when time is short.
We life in a culture that pushes us continuously and gives us subtle and overt cues to move on to the next thing before we’re finished with what we’re doing.
It takes an act of stubborn rebellion to move at a pace we choose for ourselves, and not be forced along at the breakneck, whitewater speed that is often demanded of us. It often feels both unnatural and uncomfortable to slow down, because it doesn’t match the flow of what others are doing, but the more people disengage from that flow—or at least choose the pace of life that best fits them—the better off we will all be.
Bringing the natural and human-made worlds into alignment
Most human beings are divorced from our place in the natural world. It has become a place we temporarily retreat into for solace—if at all—and then return to our human constructed environments where we are cut from living close to the land, as we are hard-wired to do.
Many of us don’t have the chance to plant organic crops, can fresh food or go off the grid, but we can reinvigorate our relationship with the natural world in a variety of other ways.
We can utilize existing space in other ways by planting guerilla gardens, taking urban wildlife, birdwatching and plant identification hikes (there is a lot to see out there), to something as simple as giving a little “juice” to thirsty plants we encounter, having a few potted plants indoors, or simply raising the blinds and curtains to let sunshine in. These ideas will be further elaborated on in a supplement to this essay discussing activities that can bring the natural world closer to us.
Speaking less frequently
And less forcefully. Buddhists have a precept known as “right speech.” I loosely interpret it to mean speaking with kindness and compassion, avoiding gossip, judging others, shaming, blaming, and speaking in anger. What's that old maxim our mothers used to tell us? “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” That’s not entirely true. There are times we need to speak truth to power, but how many times have you seen someone say their piece…and then plenty more? Sometimes anger born of a sense injustice leads to nothing constructive, especially when the ills of the world have become personalized and internalized.
The work for justice is more peaceful—and just—when it endeavors to build consensus between people and is not a contest between opposing forces of “good” and “evil” in a vainglorious attempt to claim victory in battle over one’s enemies.
It’s easy to suggest that we shouldn’t shame or deride other people. It’s easy to advise withholding angry words, but social media rewards us every day for doing the opposite. It gives us the message that when someone steps out of line, so long as we remain in the shadows of the web, we can do and say whatever we want to whomever we want—including our friends and family. During times of political crisis or other events, people are especially apt to get into heated arguments and lose friends because they land on the “wrong” side of a petty debate that evaporates almost as soon as it arrives.
But while politics always change and crises pass, relationships endure. It is the relationships we have (both the close and distant ones) that are precious jewels, yet it is our thoughts and opinions we sometimes treat as precious.
Opinions come and go. Opinions change. Relationships are irreplaceable.
We do not simply need to speak less frequently when “don’t have anything nice to say.” We can choose to speak less frequently when we don’t have anything at all to say. Another misconception that social media has inculcated within us is the notion that we must be terrified of “dead air,” that is to say, we should always have something to say, we should always be producing content. The minute we run out of content people will stop paying attention to us, forget we exist, and move on (gasp).
Forbearance is restraint. Directed toward language, it’s thinking before you speak and choosing one’s words with care and precision. It used to be said that, “discretion is the better part of valor.” It’s not simply what you choose to share, but how you choose to share it, which is the definition of tact. These social graces are in keeping with Slow Words Wisdom because they are tools that enable more compassionate communication mentioned in the paragraphs above. Neuroscientists know that typically functioning human beings all exercise forbearance as part of executive cognitive functioning. The frontal lobe of the brain (also called the neocortex or cortex) acts as a “filter” to stop us from blurting out whatever thoughts come into our heads. While we all have this ability, we can choose to conscientiously expand upon it by recognizing that the majority of our thoughts are inconsequential and not worth sharing with others.
And don’t turn work in before deadlines, especially in situations where good work is “rewarded” with more work. This is easier said than done. We have far less control over our relationship to work than we do over social media and the rest of the world. There are still resources for managing it. One tool is to ask your supervisor for a list of priorities so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. Everyone has different lifestyle needs so there is no one set of advice that applies. Some people prefer to take every break during the work day and leave on time. Others prefer to work through the day and leave early. The key is knowing what kind of situation works for you, and if you aren’t in the ideal work situation, looking for a better fit.
Valuing silence & solitude
As mentioned above, our culture teaches us that “dead air” is viewed as anathema to normal human existence, that in effect, we cannot function without receiving continuing stimulation and input. But the truth is quite the reverse. As I mentioned in my book Finding Your Way, A Guide to Building Hopes and Dreams in the chapter titled Simple Pleasures:
“Our minds, bodies and spirits need time to rest and heal. Being flooded with artificial stimuli at all times is taxing on our systems.” p.89
On the nature on silence, I further elaborated:
“You can find paradise in stillness, emptiness, silence. People have thousands of ingenious distractions in order to avoid the terror of silence, but silence is not our enemy. We can find ourselves in the spaces between our thoughts. It’s the stillness that connects us to the rest of the universe, not our thoughts or our minds…” p.89
Silence and solitude have more pragmatic value than simply as resources for people who meditate. During the COVID pandemic, most community wellness experts looked to the isolation that quarantine necessitated with dread. Much analysis has been paid to its ill effects, both socially and in terms of mental health. But amidst that resounding sense of doom, few people bothered to ascertain if there might be any positive effects wrought by quarantine. While limited human contact has many drawbacks (as did our lack of preparation for it), quarantine granted people a freedom to introspect, to create, to become closer to family, to simplify their lives, clarify their values, hopes and dreams. For many people, this was freedom they had never before experienced in their lives and likely never would again.
Undoubtedly, silence and solitude can be burdensome when prolonged, but they are healthy in moderation, given the needs of the individual. I would go so far as to say that they are as integral to normal human functioning as rest and sleep, for both silence and solitude give the mind and spirit an opportunity to process, rest and heal from the near-continuous onslaught of media, advertising and electronic stimulation that every typical human being is subjected to.
Silence and solitude are important for more than just healthy cognitive function. They give us breathing space from the constant bombardment of advertising, artificial intelligence manipulation, and social media brainwashing we are subjected to. Our brains cannot keep pace with the garbage being put into them. It is impossible to formulate and express original thoughts while our minds are being simultaneously manipulated by external sources. Therefore, silence and solitude are an opportunity to disengage from the infinite river of noise and formulate our own thoughts.
Even in a crowded house we can usually find one reliable source of solitude (though perhaps not one with an inspiring landscape): the bathroom. Do not discount its value as a safe haven and retreat. As I discovered, (relative) silence can be had for the cost of a penny for a pair of ear plugs on Amazon. When paired with some noise-canceling headphones, it may be possible to tune out an earthquake (though perhaps you wouldn’t want to). My point is that there are creative ways to create solitude and silence in even the most chaotic situations.
Using slower forms of communication
We seldom think of writing paper (snail mail) letters, handwritten notes, thank you cards, post cards, or phone calls anymore, but in a word of one-off instant messages, texts and emojis personal communication has a richness and depth that are more meaningful than ever before. Holiday cards and thank you cards are twice as meaningful when they are signed and accompanied by a personal note. Many people avoid phone conversations because they often tend to be awkward, but we tend to forget the skills involved with socializing when they fall out of practice. Conversely, they become easier the more often they are performed. Although oral and written verbal communication are what we tend to think of when evaluating how we relate to each other, we should not discount other subtle, powerful means of relating to one another. Through body language and gestures, we have the ability to create connection with other people: a smile, holding the door for someone, a nod, even turning towards someone as they’re speaking are forms of Slow Words Wisdom put into action.
Allowing others to go slower
Corollary to intentionally slowing ourselves down is allowing others to do so as well. Most of us are loath to admit to having tailgated others, finished someone else’s sentences, reminded someone they’ve told you the same story twice or exhibited other signs of impatience.
We can exercise forbearance not just in the way we speak, but in our actions as well. We do so by giving people space to go slower, and by giving them grace to be fully human. We cannot eliminate these behaviors entirely, but to the degree we do, we make ourselves more tolerant and the world a more compassionate place.
Trying to take others’ perspectives is a great way to increase the overall stock of patience, tolerance and compassion in the world. Every time we get annoyed, we can ask ourselves why someone else may be taking longer, going slower, appears checked out, rude or angry with us. We may never learn the reasons, but there may be valid reasons that we are not privy to. The stranger we just met may have just heard some bad news. They may have a disability. They could be in pain.
We are forced to admit that our understanding of other peoples' reality is limited. This is where giving people grace (also known as the benefit of the doubt) comes into play.
Forgiveness is also integral to moving forward.
If we cannot forgive others, we will forever remain stuck in the past, doomed to relive the pain of the wrongs committed against us until we can find a way to let them go.
Exercising compassion and tolerance has a reciprocal effect, creating a positive feedback loop. The more we offer tolerance, kindness and grace to others, the more likely they are to extend the benefit of the doubt to us as well.
Coming up next, Part III: Benefits of Slow words Wisdom, Corollary Concepts & Summary