As noted, this week is summer experience for first year students at UMF, so I’m commenting each day on one of the readings students are discussing. Today’s is “Channeled Whelk,” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001).
Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s piece about her ‘channeled Whelk’ spoke to her confrontation with the demands of a modern, hectic, world of demands on ones’ time and energy. In some ways, writing in 1955, she was experiencing the beginning of a new kind of world, one created by the post-war economic boom where the ability of people to acquire ever more material wealth led to a proliferation of tasks, opportunities and changes. The generation born in the post-war world thus emerged as one immersed in a society growing, expanding and ever more materialist. Raised by parents who recalled the depression, they were motivated to succeed, working ever harder, needing something like Lindbergh’s time on a beach to recover, reflect and get ready to continue apace. There are signs, however, that the up and coming generation has had enough. Raised by parents who had never truly gone without, the idea of material success is not seen as the end all and be all. There is more to life.
NPR had an interesting report awhile backabout how this generation of professionals are unwilling to do what the last generation did in terms of working 50 to 70 hour weeks in top positions at major corporations, accounting firms and law firms. Companies are worried about filling leadership roles when the current generation retires, or to replace current management staff as they ‘move up the ladder.’ People want more of an ability to work from home, they want to work fewer hours, they want more flexibility, and they’re willing to give up pay to get it. In short, quality of life trumps raw ambition and accumulation.
One can only hope this report is accurate. While the Europeans long ago embraced the notion that it doesn’t really pay to live in a world of material prosperity and wealth if you aren’t able to enjoy it, the American work force has been working longer hours and sacrificing family time and personal time in order to compete for the best jobs and the best pay. The result has been an insane culture of hecticity. Hecticity? Yes it’s a word — and has been one now for thirty seconds. I just coined it (and added it to my spell check dictionary). Hecticity is the constant stress and hectic pace of life, where people go from task to task, getting things done, taking care of mini-crises and problems, without time to really sit back and reflect.
Hecticity is a self-imposed condition, but most people don’t recognize it as such. The culture pushes us towards hecticity. In the workplace people won’t get promoted or get raises if they don’t compete. If you don’t get a raise or get promoted, you can’t get all that cool stuff that advertisers convince us is absolutely necessary for our happiness. Worse, people fear failure, and believe staying on top of things and being constantly busy is the only way to assure failure is avoided.
That’s perhaps the worst side effect of hecticity. People don’t have time to reflect on their lives, think about what is truly important to them, and enjoy life. A person suffering from hecticity has a life defined by schedules and tasks. Exhausted at the end of the day, and perhaps afraid to truly confront the inner self that needs a change, television or maybe a book is the escape. When not engaged in the hectic and stressful pace of the modern world, one chooses to escape into a film or story. One knows “yeah, I’m too busy, I need a break,” but people don’t want to confront what it would take to do that (it would require rejecting hecticity), and seriously consider major changes in life style and values. Hecticity can be comfortable, it gives you something to do, an excuse not to reflect on whether one is leading a truly meaningful life.
For my generation, it’s probably too late. Those who are caught up in the hecticity culture will find it hard to break away, it can be addictive. But it’s heartening that the new generation of young workers recognize this problem and are rebelling against it. One only hopes that the tools that enable hecticity (cell phones, palm pilots, etc.) are kept under control, lest they control us. It is a shame that in a society where we have so much convenience, luxury and comfort — and so many toys — too many of the brightest and most successful people zip through life without enjoying the opportunities they have, too caught up in the hectic pace of the modern world.
And that brings us back to Lindbergh, writing over a half century ago when all this was starting. She was a successful woman, married to a celebrity, experiencing the early fruits of the emerging post-war world. She couldn’t know that the economic boom would continue for decades, with only brief interruptions. She couldn’t see that at some point a beach cabin with virtually no technology would be an almost impossible to find vacation site in a world wired and connected. She would probably be startled that her hectic and busy life would look rather slow paced by today’s standards. Yet she saw the threat: so many demands makes it hard to achieve what she wants: “…to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enablel me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact — to borrow from the language of the saints — to life ‘in grace’ as much of the time as possible…By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated to outward harmony.”
I would prefer to live in a state of grace rather than a state of hecticity. Grace doesn’t mean boredom, but being in control of one’s myriad of projects, not getting consumed by demands that one can’t be oneself. Working 60 to 70 hours a week in an obsession with career and material possessions means giving up ones’ soul to external demands. That’s hecticity. I hope our culture is moving away from there, towards grace.