In the third of his series on urbanism and philosophy, Andreas Markides asks why we have lost the art of being tranquil
When I first came to England, some 40 years ago, my English was very limited. I certainly did not know the meaning of the word ‘’commuter’’. I now have a much better idea of that word’s definition as I have been a commuter for many years.
On occasions during my trips into and out of London during this time, I would look at my fellow commuters in disbelief – they would be reading a paper, speaking to someone on the phone or simply snoozing – but there would always be an anxious look on their faces. That look would bring to my mind a hungry wolf, at the moment when he is finally and tiredly circling his prey. This would be the look of someone in constant search of something else – something more.
And at some point the pack of wolves would attack its prey. This would be the moment when the train would arrive at its destination and pandemonium would ensue. The Force would be unleashed and everyone would be rushing in different directions, bumping into objects and people, eyes darting this way and that, many of them gasping for breath and anxiously searching – for what?
This journey would be but one part of life in London, one of the busiest cities in the world. Nothing ever stops in London; everything is constantly moving at a frantic pace. In fact, those who work in London try to outdo each other by how busy they are. It is almost a crime to admit that you are not busy. Everyone is always at meetings or on the phone, about one thing or another; always running but very rarely standing still. London is of course not an exception as we encounter similar frenetic behaviour in many other parts of the world.
In order to be creative we need to stop burdening ourselves with an otherwise busy existence–
Inevitably this leads me to ask the question – is this fast, tumultuous existence worth it? Has it provided us with a happier life than let’s say 50 years ago when the tempo of life was a little slower? In my case I can hardly wait to flee London’s rat race, in search of the tranquility of my home. It is clear that the professional path that I have chosen may have provided me with material gains but it is doubtful if it has given me a peaceful life. Maybe I have used my education and subsequent career in the wrong way! Perhaps I should have put all the knowledge that I have acquired and all my energy into something else. Or maybe I should not have allowed my professional life to be so predominant. Maybe I should have given more of my time to other pursuits. I have read somewhere that nearly 50% of a Dutch person’s time is dedicated to ‘’leisure’’ pursuits. That sounds a far more harmonious lifestyle.
In fact isn’t leisure time a lot more important than a busy professional life? Isn’t the opportunity to pursue one’s true interests (whether that maybe fishing or going to the theatre, reading a good book or enriching one’s life with travel or dialogue with friends) what leads to a civilised society? In other words should we not permit ourselves more time to be creative, rather than be confined to a prescribed professional existence in the hope that it will furnish us with comforts? Of course I recognise the importance of a working life to the economy but shouldn’t the balance be away from a busy professional life and closer to leisure and creative pursuits?
This takes us to another question – what are ‘creative’ pursuits? Certainly, I do not merely mean hobbies. Being creative means indulging in something that we feel passionate about; it means making use of that special gift (as we have all been endowed with different but special gifts), whether it is carving a face out of a piece of stone, planting a sapling in the ground and seeing it grow into a tree or developing a vaccine in a laboratory.
In order to be creative we need to stop burdening ourselves with an otherwise busy existence. Remember that Archimedes (he -of ‘’Eureka’’ fame) came up with the Law of flotation whilst having a leisurely bath! And if a busy life we must lead, we should at least seek a measure of solitude, those rare times when it is just us. How many moments of reflection do we allow ourselves to enjoy, each year? Those quiet moments, away from the maddening crowds can be so therapeutic because they allow us to re-discover ourselves and to re-orientate our life. Unless I am mistaken I think that it was Buddha who had said that ‘’time doing nothing is never wasted’’!
I reach the inevitable (and probably rather obvious) conclusions that:
- being creative is far preferable to a prescribed professional existence; and
- allowing ourselves some solitude and a few moments of reflection are not only valuable but absolutely necessary, particularly in a busy life.
And yet, and yet -most of us still lead a busy and breathless life. The leisurely pace from a few years ago has been replaced by a much more hurried life. I remember when I first started working in the mid-eighties I would send a letter to a client and probably two weeks later I would receive a response. Now if I do not receive a response to an email by the end of the day I start to worry, has my email gone astray?
So, why has the pace of life (in every aspect) increased so dramatically? There is no question that we have advanced in many different ways because as human beings we always strive for something better. It was exactly this inquisitive nature that led Prometheus to steal fire from the Olympian gods in order to give it to the human race. Just like ourselves, Prometheus spurred himself on by looking at the gods and tormenting himself by the thought that they had possession of fire whereas he and the rest of humanity were deprived of it. Therefore, he had to have it! Prometheus’ desire to better himself and consequent brave action (some might say act of folly) then led to his cruel punishment by Zeus. According to the myth, Prometheus was nailed on a rock face and a vulture was despatched to eat his immortal liver which constantly replenished itself so that the punishment would be repeated every day for eternity.
Notwithstanding our knowledge of Prometheus’ fate, we still crave for a richer life, full of knowledge and adventure. These are the things that fulfil us as human beings. However, I cannot help but wonder if, on the way, we have not lost our piece of mind. Our lives have become frenetic, running from one event to the next, wanting one more purchase after another and utilising dozens of different forms of communication. The recent onslaught of social media on our lives has exacerbated this non-stop way of living, tenfold. Running, running -always running!
Wanting to better ourselves is of course admirable and inevitable but have we lost something precious along the way? Have we lost that moment of reflection – or what I would call our tranquility?
Image: Statue of Promethius © Lucian Milasan | Dreamstime.com