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Articles & Essays

Broadcasting House – BBC Radio 4

I read this short essay on today’s programme. They did weird things to it with sound effects. No idea how it turned out – I never listen to myself if I can avoid it. You can listen again here for seven days after broadcast.

“Time waits for no man,” so the saying goes. But it seems we are determined to turn this on its head, so that no man or woman waits for any time.
Who said patience is a virtue? Today’s society is all about immediacy: we want it all, and we want it now.
It started innocently enough, with instant whip, instamatic cameras and instant mashed potato. But now instant gratification has become a way of life: instant messaging beats slow conversation; instant opinion trumps considered comment, and “on demand” has replaced “by request”.
This isn’t just a luddite complaint by those unable to keep up with the latest fads. The problem with life in the fast lane is that there’s no scenery, just a blur.
For example, when I was a kid, visiting family in Italy meant a 24 hour boat and train trip. With no hurry, you took everything in: the spray of salty waves on the ferry deck; dawn by the Swiss lakes; the irritable French buffet trolley man who did not accept “the little money”. Take a plane and you may get there quicker but the whole experience becomes generic, interchangeable with any other flight. The inside of a cabin looks the same, whether you’re flying to Lisbon or Berlin; clouds are clouds the world over; and most of the time you’re at the airport anyway. You gain a few hours but you lose precious moments.
Wasting time is not a matter of spending longer than is strictly necessary to do something; it’s a question of failing to take the time to appreciate what’s around you. Doing something quicker rarely makes it better, unless what we’re doing is simply a means to an end. But this is exactly how the instant society treats everything. The greatest failure is to miss out, so you accumulate experiences like you’re ticking off a “to do” list. We’ve forgotten that if life is indeed a journey, it’s how you travel that counts. Living life in a hurry means we’re always going somewhere but never getting anywhere.
The new Eurostar service claims to square the circle, by offering the romance of train travel, but in record-breaking time. This is typical of the false promise of modern life, which pretends we can have it all when the truth is that everything must have a price. Life only has meaning because we have to make choices, and taking one option means leaving others unexplored. Yet in a consumer society this fact is repeatedly denied. We are told we can have everything, but tasting twenty bottles of wine is not the same as savouring all of them one by one – and there’s only so much you can drink every day.
We don’t need to turn the clock back or reject the benefits of modern life; we just need to slow down sometimes and remember that getting some of what we really want later is better than getting all the things that just happen to be available right now.

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