Remember that I mentioned the slow food movement with reference to sourdough bread? It’s one of those things that I’d never heard of until recently, but once I heard it the first time suddenly it was cropping up everywhere.
Hence, I read this book, which is about slow everything – the Slow movement, to be precise. The main point of In Praise of Slow is not, as you might wonder, simply to claim that doing everything slowly is a great idea. Rather, it suggests that Western culture in recent decades has tended to default to a fast speed in everything, and challenges this unreflective approach to time. The author, Carl Honoré suggests that we should sit back and reconsider whether some aspects of our lives might benefit from a slower tempo, and argues that even areas which must remain fast and efficient can still benefit from the slowness of other activities.
Honoré covers different facets of the Slow movement – slow food, slow exercise, slow leisure activities, slow education (homeschooling for the win!), slow cities, even slow sex – with that personal investigative style you often find in these documentary-type books. Throughout, in different activities and realms of life, what recurs across slow practice is an emphasis on a rhythm of thoughtfulness, meditation, savouring, doing few things well instead of many things poorly, giving time to good things, and seeking a purposeful balance. Honore argues that these approaches yield better mental and physical health, and often benefits outside ourselves in the quality of our work or the nutrition of our food.
Now, you should know that I was already prepared to be convinced by the argument of this book, simply because it’s something I’ve already thought about. ‘Slowness’ is also something I tend to practice anyway, since I already enjoy slow leisure like knitting (which gets a mention in the book), and what I find most restful is a day with spaciousness in it – a long time for a few things.
However, I did also come to the book with a certain caution, because from my perspective there’s a possible pitfall in Slow practice. Namely, it can become almost a form of experience-worship, a way of crafting a life full of ideal experiences, and glorifying the experience of experience as the goal of everything. I see this as a pitfall simply because I don’t believe this is the goal of everything, and as a Christian I worship God rather than any part of my own life or experience. Nor, in Christian terms, is it always a good thing to make experience itself better; or, rather, that shouldn’t be the end goal of our most important activities.
Having said that, though, as a Christian there are a multitude of reasons why I think that slowing down is a good thing, in all the areas the book covers.
For one thing, with this on my mind, I kept noticing how often rest, sleep, and meditation crop up in the Bible.
Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. (Ps. 4:4)
The emphasis in the Psalms is often that we can rest because God has everything in hand. There are also the Old Testament rules about letting land lie fallow in regular rotation and animals rest as well as people – which seem to me (aside from any symbolic significance) exactly like the small-scale farming and permaculture recommended by Slow Food.
It is also often the case that our most busy, frantic undertakings are, upon examination, a result less of necessity than of pride or insecurity. One huge importance of taking a Sabbath rest is that it forces us to practice humility, releasing control by ceasing to work for a day. I think a similar self-examination, and a similar relinquishing of control, is fostered by slowness.
At the end of the day, this book has prompted me to examine the pace at which I undertake certain activities and ask whether I’m going too fast, why, and whether I could fruitfully slow down – as well as to observe the consequences of both approaches. Often, I find that my moves towards ‘efficiency’ turn out to be the opposite – either they end up wasting time, or if not that, they at least make me frustrated and frantic. Doing multiple things at once, resulting in fractured attention. Saving up small tasks (like dishes or ironing) into a big batch to tackle with maximum efficiency – which ends up being overwhelming and stress-inducing, more so than simply doing little things as they arise, though this is arguably less efficient. Or, simply, insisting that every moment be full and productive, instead of welcoming little gaps of time, breathing spaces, empty space. And I can tell you that in all these everyday activities, when I stop and say, ‘Do this slowly,’ I feel more peaceful, less anxious, and tend to enjoy things more.
The Slow Food movement is probably the first and most iconic of the movements Honoré examines, and it also furnishes the most apt metaphor for the fruits of slow practice. One member of the Slow Food movement is quoted in the book:
‘McDonald’s [or other fast endeavours] is not genuine food; it fills you up without sustaining you.’
That, I think, is the contrast that is most helpful to examine and meditate upon – the difference between what fills, and what sustains.