There have been a handful of times in the last 8 years when I’ve really felt at peace. Those times have been few, and scattered, but all happened either A) out in the country, and/or B) out of American culture, abroad, e.g. on the World Race.
In these times, I have felt the gradual quieting of my inner control freak. My latent rabid tyrant goes dormant. My emotions stabilize. I sleep better. I feel more grateful. I need less. I notice God more.
Alas, this kind of peace is ever elusive while I live in the vibrant, pulsating Austin TX. I’ve wondered many times whether the difficulty here is due to:
- The size of the city of Austin
- The lack of plentiful green space inside a city
- The American urban ethos
- The simple density of urban living, and its effects on the human condition
So, last weekend I caught up with a friend, “Jen”, who has been living in a middle eastern country for the last year. She, like me, has been living in a lively city of nearly a million people, full of tourism and energy. For shorthand, we’ll call this place “Paris” … but again that’s a pseudonym. Stay with me.
The interesting bit was when she explained that Parisians hardly ever try to accomplish more than one thing in a day. In fact, when she and her teammates manage to do this, they have a little party to celebrate.
When I heard this, I tried to picture it, tried to imagine transposing this cadence on my own life. But I just gaped. I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t fit. One thing a day?? Surely this is untenable for city life.
Furthermore, as Jen told me, when a Parisian wants to hang out with you, then you’ll do best to clear your whole schedule. Catching up with a Parisian is an affair that frequently stretches to five or six hours.
To my mind, this is basically unacceptable information.
Perhaps this would make sense in a rural place, like in the bush of Africa. But we’re talking about “Paris”, which is a developed city, where people pay rent, commute to and from work, shop for groceries, send their children to school, and furnish their homes with manufactured goods. They pay taxes, they work full time, they keep in touch with their families, they’re involved in churches or mosques, and they do (I suppose) most of the things that you and I do.
But they do it much, much slower.
Lines at their bank require two or three hours. Public transit is sometimes full to capacity, or late. Lots of people walk or ride bikes instead of driving. Parisians are not punctual, and so appointments are delayed. And they simply wait. They wait it all out.
And when Parisians hang out, there’s a lot more pause, a lot more dead silence. You might find pockets in the conversation where both participants just look around, or whatever, for several minutes at a time, with no dialogue. And Parisians seem undeterred by these lapses. They simply wait, and then resume conversation when somebody decides to speak again. And they do this for up to six hours at a time.
And this is a modern, developed city.
Are you getting why this was challenging for me?
For some contrast, I shall consider my life, our lives.
Nearly every day, I feel the tug in the back of my mind that says “Okay I’m done here, let’s get on with something else.” At that moment, I am ready to leave the group, or end the conversation, get on to my next thing; go be alone, go tinker with my latest project, plan a trip, browse craigslist, visit my fiancee, go play sports or videogames, get groceries, clean my car, entertain myself, or whatever. I have little social stamina, and it’s because I have too many planes in the air. I am spread too thin, and I hardly know anyone that doesn’t feel like that, at least some of the time. If not all the time.
I cannot handle spending five or six hours with someone. Why? For one, I have trouble being interested in most people for such a span, or even caring. There are not enough areas of the other’s life to hold my attention and fill up that many hours. And for two, it doesn’t take nearly that long before my mind is wandering into the next “important” thing for me to do. My thoughts will gravitate toward that next thing, my attention will wane, and my mind will be lost, in pursuit of the newer project on my to-do list, which endlessly beckons my attention.
And therein may be our problem.
This thought continued in Part 2, tomorrow.