Nearly a century ago, Woodrow Wilson, arguably our most scholarly president (PhD Johns Hopkins, 1883) noted that the worst part about his job was that it afforded almost no time for what he called "concentrated thought." Wilson was a man for whom contemplation and deliberation were close to divinity. Here was a man given to grand ideas which were fully-formed, then communicated with unsurpassed -- yet understandable -- eloquence. Once, when asked how long it took him to prepare a speech, an uncharacteristically jocose Wilson responded, "If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now." Reading between the lines, one senses Wilson's frustration at having lost "the needed time alone to think." For the nation's 28th president, the speed of life had simply become too rapid to permit serious contemplation.
Ironically, at the time Wilson was bemoaning the "breakneck pace of human life," the maximum speed limit in Washington, D.C. was only 10 MPH. The most expeditious way for him to communicate with other world leaders was the via diplomatic cable, which could take more than 24-hours; a trip between Washington and Berlin took about a week -- provided that there were no storms at sea. A person in San Francisco sending a letter to a friend or family member in, say Boston, could start looking for a response in about 7 or 8 days. And yet for Wilson, the world was moving entirely too fast for comfort. Imagine what "The Phrasemaker" would have to say about the speed of life in 2012, when an email or text that goes answered for more than a few minutes causes us to stew or fret . . .
The ever-increasing speed of life is like a narcotic; we can never get enough. That which was considered to be "faster than a speeding bullet" just yesterday, is no better than a snail's pace today. The ever-increasing speed of life has made us ever-increasingly impatient. Not that long ago, no one gave a second thought to the fact that a radio or television took anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute to "warm up." Today that wait would be a totally unacceptable eternity. Remember when getting up off the couch to change channels on the one television in the house was de rigueur? Or how little time it took to figure out which programs were on at 8:00 pm? Today, a life without many remotes for many flat-screens is a life filled with deprivation; one needs a good 5 minutes just to look through the menu selector in order to check out the hundreds of programs coming on in the next time-slot. Remember when a 56k dial-up modem was the ultimate in speed? It wasn't all that long ago. Really. Today, a wait of more than a couple of nano-seconds is worse than waiting for Godot . . .
There are several corollaries to the heightened impatience and sense of immediacy brought on by the ever-increasing speed of life: a rise in unrealistic expectations; an explosion in the number of instantaneous sources providing information; even less time for "concentrated thought." How else to explain why today a new president has at best, a one month "honeymoon" with the public, where yesterday it might last the better part of two years? Or the rapid rise and even more rapid fall of "front runners" like Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich? Time and again we anoint a new messiah, a new emperor, only to discover that he or she has no clothes. We give leaders next to no time to solve social, political and economic problems that may have taken years to fester before reaching the surface. We proclaim programs to be abject failures even before they go into effect. It is reminiscent of the old joke about the die-hard Cubs fan who, after an Opening Day loss, loudly proclaimed, "Just wait until next year!" We expect reality to mirror a two-hour motion picture in which all problems can be addressed, analyzed, and solved by super heroes before a glorious final fadeout. But reality is not a motion picture; our leaders are not super heroes, let alone messiahs or emperors. And its not their "nakedness" which makes them unacceptable; it's the discovery that they are clothed in off-the-rack garments, just like the rest of us . . .
Viewed in this light, is it all that surprising that impatience, frustration and anger are the most prevalent of public emotions? We see ourselves caught in the gaping maw of insoluble problems -- issues of economy and ecology, of war and of peace -- that are rarely addressed with anything even approaching well-conceived seriousness. Time and again we hear candidates and commentators tell us precisely who or what is the source of our communal challenges and difficulties -- as if the act of identifying a culprit will make the challenges go away. And as much as we may know that this is simply not the case -- that there are no simple solutions to systemic problems -- many will hold their nose, suspend their belief and anoint yet another messiah who will be labeled a failure within a fortnight.
Beyond any partisan political wishes I may have for 2012, I pray that we as a nation engage in more "concentrated thought"; that a strong, active, and purpose-driven majority will finally grow up and quit looking for the one person with the one slogan who promises to make all our problems magically vanish. Historically, psychology and emotion have always lagged behind advances in technology. Simply stated, invention is easy, adaptation is not. If we are ever to put our nation, our economy and our people back on secure footing it will come not through enslaving ourselves to a mythic time when everything worked -- which is utterly ridiculous and counter-intuitive -- but through adapting to -- and mastering -- the speed of life.
May the optimism, energy and hopefulness of our founders and pioneers be our inheritance in 2012.
As 2011 winds down, permit me to conclude with Grandpa Doc's favorite all-purpose toast: "
Here's to health and happiness . . ."
©2011 Kurt F. Stone