An Ode to Slowness

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” — Lao Tzu

According to common wisdom, anything that is worthwhile takes a long time. Yet this is opposite to what the world often tells us. 

Everything seems to be about acceleration, upgrades and instant success. In corporate speak, we are offered ‘business acceleration programmes,’ for ‘high-potential managers’ to ‘boost our impact’ and be on a ‘fast-paced learning journey.’ 

And thanks to Silicon Valley, we now have the cult of startups: every disillusioned corporate worker - or even activist - needs to be their own boss, set up a social enterprise and scale up, quickly (even though an estimated 90 per cent of new startups fail). So instead of growth, we hear of de-growth movements, instead of acceleration, we hear of de-celeration strategies, instead of for-profit, we create non-profits. 

But is the way we respond to problems part of the problem? Does anyone actually believe we can accelerate ourselves out of climate catastrophe? 

Philosopher Byung Chul Han cautions against strategies of deceleration, which don’t fix the problem but merely cover it up: “slow food does not differ from fast food, things are consumed – no more, no less.” Philosopher and Poet Bayo Akomolafe notes how we have become the system we are fighting against; complicit in our own destruction.

So how did we get here? According to Han, it has to do with time. With industrialisation, human temporality approaches the temporality of machines; it all becomes about functionality, efficiency, productivity, uniformity, and always proceeding towards a goal. 

Technological innovation and our obsession with progress, has made us believe we are masters of our own time. So we produce and consume with accelerating speed and the time we take to rest is merely in order that we can continue to work.

This is a world of hyperactivity. A world in which nothing endures or is taken care of anymore. But just being active impoverishes and makes us feel groundless. Han says it “robs the human being of the capacity for contemplation. Thus those things which only reveal themselves in contemplative lingering remain hidden.” 

So what does it mean to slow down?

Slowing down is not simply about doing things with less speed. Akomolafe speaks of Yoruba mythology which says we must stay perfectly still in the face of the storm; slowing down, for him, is a function of awareness, of presence, and of listening, not of speed. It’s about being with people, community, ancestry, children, in a way that isn’t instrumentalising. “Activism,” he says, “is increasingly instrumental, so it’s forming a form of power that is tied to the logic and algorithm of the status quo, which makes activism, even in the search for justice, a creature of the status quo.” This, he says, we must leave behind. We must hack the machine.

For Han, we need a revitalisation of vita contemplativa, or contemplative lingering. Because it is in this space of contemplation that new ideas emerge, that things develop and mature. This is a practice of friendliness, he says, “it lets happen, comes to pass, and agrees instead of intervening.” Without a contemplative dimension, the vita activa, or active life, merely uses up time, whereas “contemplative lingering gives time.” 

As the world speeds up around us, slowness, like rest, is an act of resistance. We all know that the work of real change is slow and we must stand firm against the temptation of quick solutions and low hanging fruit. 

Here at the Rights Studio, we embrace slowness and find inspiration in the turtle, which represents wisdom, knowledge, longevity, power, tenacity, creativity, and insight. Or like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable, we aspire to practise steadfastness and perseverance over speed and overconfidence. But this is not an easy road, and we are just at the beginning of our journey. 

We cannot speed up time, nor actually save it, but we can use it wisely and enjoy it. 

In the words of Akomolafe, “It is no longer time to rush through the contested world blinded by fury and anger – however worthwhile these are. Now … is the time to ‘retreat’ into the real work of reclamation, to re-member again our humanity through the intimacy of our relationships. The time is very urgent – we must slow down.”

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

References

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu

The Scent of Time, Byung Chul Han

‘Slowing Down in Urgent Times,’ For the Wild podcast with Bayo Akomolafe, 155, 22 January 2020

‘The Times are urgent, let us slow down,’ by Bayo Akomolafe, author’s website 

 Further Resources


The Burnout Society, Byung Chul Han



‘The Peace of Wild Things,’ by Wendel Berry, animated poem presented by OnBeing in The Pause.


‘F*ck Productivity,’ Michelle Minnikin, Work Pirates, Unf*cking Work

Nov 5, 2021

Feminism in Popular Tamil Music

Sep 23, 2022

In Praise of Lostness

Archimedes: ”Give me a place to stand and I shall move the earth.” Chinua Achebe: “But such a place does not exist. We all have to stand on the earth itself and go with her at her pace.”

Jun 9, 2023

To Practise Courage

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” — Anais Nin

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