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Starting Point

Unchecked speed assaults the soul


My husband and I went hiking recently in Missouri’s Elephant Rock State Park where there are ancient granite boulders several times the size of an elephant.

As we climbed to the top of one boulder and basked in the winter sun, I thought about time, change and human nature. I began to imagine a project for some well-funded entity that would investigate the effect of speed on us humans. By “speed” I mean both the movement from here to there, once confined to foot, then horse, then trains and ships, automobiles and jet planes. By speed I also mean the process of transmitting and receiving information: from face-to-face conversations to telephone; reading to television; letter-writing to the Internet.

Each of these movements requires a big leap and we’ve made these leaps relatively fast -- relative, that is, to the more gradual adaptation of the human being. The study of evolution shows that species do adapt to changes in environment, but over centuries, not decades.

What is the effect of these enormous and relatively sudden increases in speed on the human being? Such a study should be cross-disciplined and examine the biological, psychological, sociological, and spiritual implications.

Consider, for instance, the epidemic of cancer and heart disease. Could speed be stressing the human being to such a point that these stress-related conditions are the reaction of a worn-out body? Or what about the plethora of mind diseases: attention deficit disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism? Could it be that these are the mind’s overwhelmed response to speed?

Sociologically our children are growing up in a world increasingly different from our world. Teenagers refer to “dating” other teenagers they have met only via the Internet. Interesting that the term “going out” is still used when neither party leaves their home. And many of us have longer conversations with folks who live on another part of the planet than with the neighbors in the next apartment or down the block.

Does speed affect us spiritually? It seems that it must. Spirituality demands a certain centeredness, time to reflect, to be. Unchecked speed must be an assault on the soul.

Such a study ought to be done soon while there are still people alive who remember when they walked most places or did not have a television or telephone. There could be control groups of course: the Amish or back-to-the-land types who would agree to do without speed for a year. (Me! Me! I’ll do it!)

For us Catholics, it would be interesting to explore the effect of speed on our idea of church and authority within the church. It’s one thing for us to revere the pope as the head of the church when he is primarily a distant symbol of unity and when there is a long period of time between a papal utterance and a small-town congregation in Missouri knowing what he said. Now when the pope speaks on Friday, pastors everywhere may have to answer questions about it on Sunday morning. A hundred years ago the pope could not call a meeting of the cardinals in the United States and expect them to arrive the following week. It would take months to call such a meeting. The influence of Rome on individual congregations is greater now than ever before in history. Has our ecclesiology consciously adapted to our technology?

It’s not all bad news and I don’t mean to imply that it is. Creating a global community; accessing information from a seemingly infinite array of sources; travel -- these are all goods. But they aren’t without consequences, some of them hard on the human person. Rather than wait for the natural adaptation of the species, perhaps we can do more to consciously counter-balance the negative effects.

In our little world in rural Missouri, we are grateful to have found a kind of balance, albeit one that often needs tweaking. It is glorious to have Internet access to the world’s libraries and newspapers and the ability to correspond with distant friends while we are warmed by the fire in our woodstove and eat a breakfast that includes eggs from our chickens and milk from our goats. The TV/VCR combination we use to view the occasional movie, but without an incoming television signal, seems to us the best of both worlds. Not everyone would make our choices, but so many folks seem to be making no conscious choice at all. Instead, they are hurtling through life, slamming into each other with little acknowledgment, groaning all the while about how busy they are.

It’s a privilege to take the time to muse as we hike among granite that preexists all we have ever known. It forces a bit of perspective, one that is hard to gain when you’re on speed.

Paige Byrne Shortal is the pastoral associate at St. Francis Borgia Parish in Washington, Mo. She can be contacted at pbs@fidnet.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003