The Speed of Life

A sermon delivered by
Peter Boulatta
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 26 August 2001

I don’t drive. I don’t have a driver’s license and never learned to drive. This was never an impediment to me; I have always lived in the centre of large cities, places where I could walk, bike, or take public transit anywhere I needed to go. It never mattered until I started my ministerial internship in Weston, Massachusetts, a town about twenty minutes from Boston. That’s twenty minutes by car. By public transit, from my front door to the front door of the church, it’s more like an hour and a half. The most direct way to get there by public transit is to take the commuter rail from Boston. The train stop in Weston is about two kilometers from the center of town, where First Parish Church is located. It is a pleasant walk along a country road. My trek along the road brings me over a stream, gushing in the springtime, leisurely murmuring in the summer. I walk past an old red barn, where the road turns into the woods, under a sun-dappled canopy of trees. I look forward to this jaunt through the woods, have come to think of it as my constitutional. I spend the time in thought, able to gather my thoughts together with no real distractions. It is restive, ambling through the elements: sun, sometimes rain, and yes, even snow. Breathing fresh air, delighting in my surroundings, focusing my mind, expanding my spirit.

The folks at church are horrified. "You walk? You walk from the commuter rail station? Why, that’s a mile away!" This is, after all, a rural town spread out into the woods and hills surrounding the Town Center. They are used to driving everywhere. And yet, driving everywhere is also a cultural impulse, a kind of valorization of the automobile. The car equals freedom, the quick closing down of the gap between you and where you want to be. Mobility, efficiency, control: all somehow symbolized in the car.

And the car, I do admit, is above all efficient. An hour and a half by public transit and foot collapses into a twenty-minute ride in a car. And God forbid anybody should waste their time! It is this notion of saving time, of not wasting time, that I think is a key to understanding much of our contemporary life. We would deny the delights of a walk in the woods, or a walk in the city for that matter, for the sake of getting there more quickly. Getting there is the point, and wasting as little time as possible doing it is paramount. We are focused on the result, and on the most efficient means of obtaining that result.

Efficiency is the watchword of modern life. The industrial revolution mechanized many human activities in order to make them more time efficient. Our modern conveniences were invented so that many of our daily tasks would take less time, would be more convenient. And though I do not want to return to an era where it took a whole day to wash your clothes, I am concerned. I am concerned that I find it inconvenient when I send an e-mail and don’t get an answer five minutes later. Telephones, faxes, e-mail, have all made communication much quicker in our time. Gone are the days of writing a letter by hand, putting a stamp on it and dropping it into the mail! That might take a whole week to reach its recipient! The Internet has made research much quicker; with the press of a few buttons, a few clicks of the mouse, and whole vistas of information open up to us, mere minutes after beginning our search. What concerns me is that this expectation that everything can be delivered to us in a moment has eroded some basic human virtues, such as consideration, thoughtfulness.

For efficiency is brought about by control. We need to control the circumstances in order to get the result we want in the time frame we want. We need to control how our time is spent. Road rage happens when drivers find themselves not in control. The car promises unbounded freedom, an open road. When a twenty-minute ride takes longer than I want it to, road rage erupts. Road rage happens when drivers who are used to everything happening quickly, instantly can’t deal with sharing the road with others who might slow them down or get in their way.

When walking, you are unlikely to experience road rage. What would we even call it—sidewalk rage? Slowing down to a walking pace, you become less concerned with ends and more with means. You are open to the elements (which you do not control), not encased in a bubble of metal and glass, and therefore open to what might cross your path. In the city, chance encounters can happen walking down a sidewalk, a neighbour or friend or an old acquaintance can appear on your path: a conversation can unfold, a connection made.

"I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life," writes Henry David Thoreau, in his essay on walking, "who understand the art of walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering." He goes on to explore the roots of the word saunter, derived from wanderers who roved the country asking for charity under the pretext of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—la Sainte Terre. A saunterer was a sainte-terrer, a holy lander. Thoreau acknowledges that the word may also come from sans terre, without land, a landless vagrant at home everywhere.

Going for a walk, sauntering, is a way of slowing down. A recent cultural history of walking by Rebecca Solnit called "Wanderlust," shows an age-old connection between walking and thinking. She sites not only Thoreau, but also Wordsworth, Coleridge and Jean Jacques Rousseau, who said that he could "meditate only when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think. My mind only works with my legs." Medieval monasteries included enclosed spaces for walking, and thousands of pilgrims walked hundreds of kilometers from the Pyrenees along northern Spain to the coastal city of Santiago. After walking in a civil rights march to Selma Alabama, the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked: "I was praying with my feet." In slowing down, thoughtfulness, prayerfulness can be cultivated. "Modern life is moving faster that the speed of thought," Solnit writes, "or thoughtfulness. "

It’s not always about getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, but to savour the walk. In other ways, too, the destination is not as important as the journey. Walking, cycling, public transit, even car sharing are all ways to break dependence on the automobile, and its attendant environmental hazards. But just as importantly, we can cultivate a love of sauntering, a desire to pay attention to our surroundings, to live altogether more slowly, more deliberately.

In slowing down, thoughtfulness can be cultivated. The Buddhist monk from Viet Nam, Tich Nhat Hanh, speaks of mindfulness as an everyday meditation practice. In a simple daily act such as washing dishes, if we slow down, if we pay attention, we practice mindfulness. "Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end," he writes, "--that is, not only do we do the dishes in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them".

In the simplest of daily activities—washing dishes, cleaning and cutting vegetables, setting the table—we can be practicing mindful meditation, if we only slow down and pay attention. In a hurried life of pre-packaged microwaved fast foods, we can learn the art of mindfulness both as a spiritual discipline and as a contribution to improving the common good.

Fast food. As life speeds up, mealtime often disappears. Meals are consumed on the go, prepared and served as fast as it can be made.

When I was a teenager, I worked in a fast food restaurant. I hesitate to use the word restaurant. It was more like a factory. The kitchen was set up like an assembly line. The burgers would come through the grill on a conveyor belt, dropped into a waiting bun after which (if it was really busy) each worker would add an ingredient and pass it down the line to the chute from which the cashier would deliver it to the hurried, harried customer. We even had production levels. When it got really busy, for example, we would be at level five and that meant that a certain number of sandwiches needed to be in the chute at all times. If you’ve ever seen the episode of "I Love Lucy" where Lucille Ball is working in a chocolate factory, you’ll have a pretty good picture of what this was like.

Fast food. Its production takes the mechanical, industrial model, making it more time efficient to produce. What does it mean for our culture that food, a basic human need and pleasure, takes its model from Henry Ford and the automobile production line?

I’d like to tell you a little bit about the Slow Food Movement. The slow food movement began in Italy in the late 1980s as an American fast food chain planned to open its first restaurant (burger factory) in Rome. Simply put, slow foods are traditional, fresh, made from local ingredients, and served at unhurried meals. Leisurely enjoying pleasant meals with companions and family is their goal. The official name of the slow food movement organization is the International Movement for the Defense and the Right to Pleasure. Pleasure—to savour good food in good company. The opening line of their manifesto states: "Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first invented the machine and then took it as its life model." And then took the machine as our life’s model.

Slow food can be as simple as slowing down the way you prepare and eat meals. A moment of grace, a simple word of thanks before a meal can help cultivate mindfulness. The slow food movement also encourages adult-child cooperation in the kitchen, as a way of teaching cooking and nutrition to children as well as having quality time together. Shopping for fresh produce grown locally and for baked goods from local bakeries are also ways to participate. Preparing and eating meals from your family’s tradition is another, keeping alive both family memories and ethnic traditions. If you want inspiration, I’d suggest renting and watching the films "Babette’s Feast" or "Like Water For Chocolate."

Slow food is an antidote to a culture of fast, convenient food and microwave cooking. It encourages us all to slow the pace of our daily living in order to savour—to take pleasure in—our food and drink. It encourages us to be mindful at mealtime, in a delicious blend of social activism and sensuality.

"Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?" asks Thoreau. "I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life… I wish to live deep and suck out the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to rout all that is not life." How can you live deliberately? What are some ways that you can practice mindfulness in your daily life, ways that nourish your soul and help heal the planet? How can you cultivate delight and pleasure in your day-to-day living?

Concord, Massachusetts, the home of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other important Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century, is a few towns over from Weston, where I am doing my internship. It is, in fact, two stops after Weston on the commuter rail. One Sunday afternoon this June, Brian and I hopped on the train and went to Concord. I had the sense that we were making a pilgrimage of sorts, Massachusetts being as close as Unitarian Universalists will ever get to having a Holy Land, to visit the sites of many of these important thinkers who were so instrumental in shaping Unitarianism as we have come to know it in the twentieth century.

We walked (yes, walked) to Walden Pond to visit the woods in which Thoreau lived out his experiment of simple living, deliberate living. As many of you know, Thoreau left Concord to take up residence in a cabin he built himself by the edge of Walden Pond. He hoped to get away from an increasingly industrialized society in order to live closer to the rhythms of nature, ensconsed in the wildness, the wilderness, that he so loved. It was a somewhat overcast day, and we hiked through the woods, on trails that circles the pond. The pond itself was placid and still, the woods peaceful and quiet. We walked around the pond, like two pilgrims encricling the Kaaba in Mecca. A replica of Thoreau’s cabin gives visitors a sense of what his daily life must have been like. Sturdy, simply furnished, without modern amenities like electricity, let alone a telephone or e-mail. His words resonated somewhere within: I wish to live deliberately, I wish to live deep. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.

And I realized, that I, too, wished to live a deliberate life, and not be hurried along from point A to point B, but to slow down. To suck the marrow of life and take the time to taste it, to savour it.

"So we saunter toward the Holy Land," Thoreau says, "till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn."

May we all saunter through the holy land that is our life. May we live deliberately, awake and mindful. May we live deliberately, in full and conscious delight of the joys of this life, relishing and enjoying every precious moment.