Slow Down--You're Moving Too Fast!

by Tina Blue
August 11, 2000

          Not too long ago I asked three classes full of college freshmen if they knew the treatment for an attack of hyperventilation. The result of my informal survey was that they all did--and they all had known that information for several years! If I were an extraterrestrial anthropologist observing a society where virtually all adolescents know how to treat an attack of hyperventilation, I would certainly assume that high levels of stress and anxiety are pervasive in that culture.

          A second survey, immediately following the first, showed that all the students also knew the causes and treatment of high blood pressure. I have to tell you, even thirty years ago adolescents did not know what to do for hyperventilation or high blood pressure. Those conditions were not even on our radar when I was an undergraduate.

          Allow me to share the results of one more such survey. When I asked the same three classes if they knew how much sleep they needed to feel fully rested, to be able to wake up without an alarm clock (or three or four, as many of them use!), and to feel able to get out of bed without regret, about three-fourths of the students overall admitted that they had no idea. Think about it.

          The only way to know how much sleep you need is to get that much sleep for at least two or three weeks--long enough to compensate for any sleep deficits you started with and to accommodate your body to sleeping when you are tired, for as long as you need to feel rested. A hundred years ago, nine and one-half hours was the average amount of sleep people got in this country. Today it is seven hours.

          The fact that so many eighteen- to twenty-year-olds are so completely clueless about their own sleep requirements suggests that for as long as they can remember, they have never had enough sleep. Remember, they are adolescents. They aren't yet raising children or working to pay off mortgages and college loans. Most of them are probably less pressed now than they ever will be again in their lives.

          There is one other "survey" to report on, but this one I do not take in my classes. I frequently ask young people--some of them my students, some not--in the course of our private conversations whether they are on Prozac, Zoloft, or any other antidepressant. The usual response is that they are. So here's a portrait for you of the American adolescent: stressed out, exhausted, depressed.

          Even moderately attentive observation reveals that they are not alone. Stress, exhaustion, and depression shadow the lives of an awful lot of adults in our society, too. We might as well go ahead and add alcohol and (legal and illegal) drug abuse to the mix, also, since they are so closely correlated with stress, exhaustion, and depression, and since the evidence of pervasive drug and alcohol dependency, among both adolescents and adults, is everywhere we look.

          Not a pretty picture, is it? But what can we expect, when our lives, as structured by both necessity and expectation in the United States, are so clearly not fit for human beings?

          I think about the time I worked in a factory where I was supposed to pack boxes full of bags of beans and rice as they came at me on a conveyor belt. I was quite efficient, and the foreman was thrilled that I never got backed up or needed help. After my first day, though, I began to find the job more and more exhausting.

          By the second week, it was harder and harder to keep from getting backed up. Before the end of the second week, I started to get more frequently backed up as the day wore on and, much to my embarrassment, had to call for help to get caught up. (Think of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, and you'll have a pretty good idea of how things were going for me by the end of the second week.)

          The next Monday, I fell behind within the first hour, even though I was feeling fresh and feisty after a weekend's rest. But that didn't seem right, so I risked diverting my attention from my task for a bit. (You can bet that up till then I had not lifted my eyes or slowed down for a moment to pay attention to anything other than my desperate attempts to keep up.) What I suddenly realized was that the foreman had been gradually increasing the speed of the conveyor belt, to force me to move faster and faster, to squeeze more and more work out of me in less and less time. And since I was working so frantically to keep up, I hadn't even had a chance to notice what he had been doing.

          Well, I believe that in virtually every aspect of our lives, someone or something is speeding up the conveyor belt. When a company downsizes, the remaining employees have to pick up the slack. They add their former coworkers' tasks to their own workload, but of course they don't get the extra pay to go with the extra work. In fact, with the example of their laid-off colleagues so recently before them, many workers feel coerced into surrendering pay raises and benefits, and sometimes even into taking pay cuts, just to maintain their hold on jobs that have been so brutally shown to be precarious.

          Because laptops, beepers, cell phones, and fax machines make it possible to stay in touch with the workplace no matter where we are, it has come to be expected that we will stay in touch, be always on call, or carry our work home with us to do in the taxi, on the plane, at the beach, or even just at the kitchen table after the kids are in bed. Anyone who dares to draw the line and say no to working during their "free time," or even while on vacation, is made aware that there are plenty of people who could use that job.

          One of the major concerns in labor negotiations these days is the issue of "forced overtime"--i.e., overtime that's paid at the time and a half rate, but that the worker does not have the option of refusing. Even worse, many employees are coerced into punching out and then staying to work overtime for free.

          Even as people in other countries sneer at the "lazy" American worker, our worker productivity outstrips that of every other industrialized nation in the world. We work more hours, get less time off, and produce more--and yet, compared to workers in our peer nations, we have fewer benefits, and our wages and salaries remain low.

          All that extra value we add to the companies we work for in the form of enhanced productivity goes to pump up company profits and CEO compensation packages, not to improve our take-home pay. The economy that looks so robust from the outside feels stretched and thin to the typical American worker, and the gap grows ever wider between the compensation of those who run the businesses and those whose work makes those companies profitable. Karl Marx would have a field day!

          As for my beleaguered college students, the financial pinch caused by going to college (the cost of which increases at twice the rate of inflation, even as more and more undergraduates are taught by seriously underpaid, "part-time" adjunct faculty) causes them to work more hours at whatever jobs they can find to fit around their class schedules. They also have to meet course requirements that are added to without much thought for the relevance of any new requirement to the future needs of the students.

          But we don't just work too much. We play too much, too. Even when we could go to sleep, we stay up to watch TV, play Nintendo, chat on the Internet, chew the fat with a friend, read a book, or go to a party, a bar, or a dance club.

          Partly, no doubt, we are trying to cram in the leisure activities our increased workload is threatening to squeeze out of our lives. Partly, we are reluctant to go to sleep because then it's morning in the blink of an eye, and we have to drag ourselves out of bed and go back to the jobs that so many of us find so much less rewarding than they once seemed. But partly, too, it's just that there are so darned many cool things to do, and we really can't stand to tear ouselves away from them, even when we are staggering from exhaustion.

          Oh, and it's not just adolescents and adults who are always sleep-deprived. It's little kids, too, even toddlers and infants. Parents pull their kids out of bed to get them to daycare before they hurry off to work. By the time the kids are picked up again in the evening, by the time dinner has been thrown on the table, and the child is bathed and ready for bed, it is often quite late.

          And, often, guilt-ridden parents are reluctant to enforce an early bedtime, since late evening may be the only opportunity the parents have to spend time with their children at all. Furthermore, being in daycare all day is not like being in your own home, with your own stuff, surrounded by your own family. Even if a child enjoys daycare, being there all day is inevitably stressful, and usually overstimulating as well--especially for young children and infants. Besides, they miss their families.

          Really, we can't live like this, you know. It's as if we are racing through the corridors of our lives, never stopping to actually live. How often do we look up to realize a day, a month, a year--a decade!--has zipped by, and we were too busy to notice? We weren't evolved for such a pace, and we don't tolerate it well.

          We get fat because we're too rushed to exercise or to prepare real food. Besides, stress and exhaustion often provoke overeating, and stress-induced eating tends to center on foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. We seldom get out to enjoy nature, which we can't find anyway for all the buildings, cars, and concrete. Our immune systems are compromised, our stomachs churn, our hearts are damaged, our arteries are clogged, and our backs and necks scream in an agony of tension.

          We would notice how awful we feel and how little fun we're having, except that we don't really have the time or energy to notice much of anything. The epidemic of stress-related illnesses is treated with antidepressants, so that sufferers will remain functional enough to go to work and to keep up with the incessant demands that we mistake for life.

          It's almost as if we have a cultural bias against rest, relaxation, and leisure. Anyone who isn't always on the go, cramming as much as possible into the hours of a day, is regarded as lazy and unmotivated. Our cultural hero is the multi-tasking dynamo, the go-getter. But look what our priorities have gotten us into.

          If you knew you were going to die in six months, would you be doing most of the things you are doing now? What would you be doing? Those things you would choose to do if your time were limited are the things that mean the most to you. Those things that you would abandon are probably of little value in your life. If there is not a significant degree of overlap between those two lists, then you are probably having a fairly crummy life.

          And by the way, it isn't just a thought experiment. You are dying, and your time is limited. Six months, sixty years. It doesn't matter how much time you have left, it won't be enough--and it will disappear all the faster if you don't stop racing through it.

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