Hurry sickness

Photo by John PilgeI have a chronic disease that flares up now and then.  There’s a good chance that you have the same one.

It’s called hurry sickness.

And it’s contagious.

I like to think that my symptoms aren’t as bad as what I sometimes see in others.  On my freeway commute yesterday morning, I watched in my rear view mirror as someone roared up behind me, tailgated for a while, then began changing lanes, dodging in and out of traffic.  Good luck with that, I thought.  It’s rush hour.  About a mile up the road we’re going to slow to a crawl.  You’re not going to beat the traffic, so just relax.  Sure enough, in a few minutes, he was stuck, and I rolled past him at a blistering 12 miles an hour.  Some people just don’t get it, I thought smugly.

Then I noticed that the driver in front of me had left a good three- or four-car length gap in front of him.  I wondered why he didn’t close up the space.  So I passed him (safely, of course) and took up the space myself.  Good thing, too: I must have reached my destination a whole two-and-a-half seconds sooner.

Some people just don’t get it, the driver who was now behind me must have thought.

I am capable of recognizing the futility of such behavior, but doing it anyway.  Why this compulsion?

One factor is surely our cultural fascination with speed and power.  I’m reminded of the recent commercial for the Cadillac XTS, which opens with images of well-dressed people mystified to find their car doors lying in the street.  The culprit?  An alpha male in his new Cadillac Turbo, zooming past parked cars with such force that it sends their doors flying.  That could be an amusing concept, except that the driver practically smirks in arrogance as he looks behind him.  Speed, apparently, is power; power is significance.  (Shoot the same commercial with him rocketing through a poorer neighborhood, ripping apart cars, and see if anyone still thinks it’s funny.)

Sometimes, we’re hurried because we’re harried; we simply have too many things to do, and not enough time to do them.  But I suspect that hurry sickness has a deeper spiritual dimension: a chronic concern about our value and place in life, an inability to rest, to be at peace.

We look for ways to exert control over our environment, to improve our lot in some way.  We shell out money for technology that promises to make our lives easier, then find our gadgets sucking up as much time as they save.  Or we try to get ahead on the freeway: We may all be stuck in traffic, but hey, at least I’m in front of you.

Here’s a thought experiment.  I naturally seek out the shortest checkout line in the grocery store; don’t you?  After all, who wants to wait?  Sometimes, there’s even a subtle and silent game of “chicken” with shopping carts: you think you notice someone else heading for that coveted spot in the shortest line and pick up your pace.  Will there be any actual eye contact?  Who’s going to back off first?  (Black Friday’s coming soon–don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

We might justify all of this by saying that we need to get to the next thing on the schedule.  But what if you didn’t have somewhere you needed to be?  Would you still be annoyed with the person in line in front of you who seems to be taking much longer than necessary?  Why?

What makes it impossible to rest, to be spiritually still, even when our schedules permit it, or we know that hurriedness will get us nowhere?

The psalmist writes:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. … “Be still, and know that I am God!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”  (Ps 46:1-3, 10, NRSV)

If we find it difficult to be still, is there something we need to know?