By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.
Years ago, I worked on a project in East Africa designed to bring running water to all the huts of a remote village in Kenya. The new system would help eliminate malaria, increase sanitation and significantly reduce the spread of infectious diseases as well as decreasing the child mortality rate. At the completion of the project, an elderly tribesman poignantly mentioned that we had also eliminated the center –and heart –of the village by replacing the town well which had functioned as a gathering place.
Technology can be compared to a hammer, something that can be used constructively or destructively. From the invention of the wheel and later on, gun powder, to steam engines and nuclear, medical or Internet technologies, we have always had to face the potential costs of these inventions. The biggest upside of modern technology has been the dramatic increase in access to information. It now seems that the biggest downside is the even more dramatic increase in the pace of life.
Reflections On Speed
I was rushing the other morning to get to my laptop to complete this essay. As I was driving my car, I was also talking to my wife on my cell phone, while eating my lunch and listening (was I?) to my favorite classical music radio station. In the midst of all this, my palm pilot beeped, which meant it was protesting being ignored. The irony of rushing to write an article on the impact of speed on daily life did not escape me. Multitasking on my way to describing the importance of “standing still” truly seemed ludicrous.
Today, the sad fact is that we live in a hurried society in which people feel rushed, overscheduled, stressed and unable to keep up. We fill our lives with computers, cell phones, wireless laptops, palm pilots and other time saving gadgets, only to find ourselves deprived of time. We read books and take seminars on time management, we hire consultants to help us manage our businesses and personal lives more efficiently only to find ourselves frantic, impatient, short tempered and frustrated. We cram our children’s lives full of music lessons, soccer practices, and tutoring and end up raising a new generation of hurried children. M. Bonnano reminded us that “Being rich is having money; being wealthy is having time.”
Like physicians, many psychotherapists mirror the speedy culture in which we live. We rush clients in and out our offices, many have shrunk the traditional 50 minute hour to a 45 or 40 minute hour and give psychological tests that equate speed with intelligence. Above all, therapists (bowing to pressure from managed care perhaps) now try to speed up the process of healing.
At the turn of the new millennium, it seems like we are accustomed to one pace– full speed ahead. Our cars, computers, Internet connections, TV sound bites, all reflect the high speed we desire at all times and under all circumstances.
As James Gleick documented in his book FASTER, we try to speed up even the un-speedable. We obsessively push the “close door” elevator button that gives us the illusion that we are speeding up the door closure. The fact is that this button–certainly the most worn out on the elevator panel–does NOT speed up the closing of the door. We try to eliminate meal preparation by eating fast food. A restaurant in Japan has abandoned the typical way we are charged for food, now it simply charges patrons 35 yens per minute! We also have books and seminars on how to compost faster, create a 36 hour day and make love in a more time efficient manner. There are even texts on how to relax and meditate more quickly, truly a paradox of modern life worth meditating on!
Since the Industrial Revolution, striving for greater speed has become increasingly desirable. Steam engines, trains, cars, planes, jets, concords and space shuttles have been progressive landmarks during the last few hundred years. Speed provides people with a pleasurable high. This high can be experienced on a roller coaster or a fast bike, in a speeding car or by consuming coffee or amphetamines. Starbucks’ meteoric success and the billions of dollars spent annually on caffeinated drinks, methamphetamines and cocaine, illustrates the addiction aspect of speed in our culture.
As psychotherapists, we witness the immense toll this “hurry” sickness extracts from people. Cell phones, beepers and wireless laptops are annoyingly and intrusively present not only in restaurants, movie theatres and on remote hiking trails but also in our offices. When hurried adults become frustrated, discontented and short-tempered, children are also affected. Most adults and their children seem to have a constant desire to be in front of a computer, play station or television. It is ironic that in a culture that is so obsessed with activity, more and more of our children are being diagnosed as hyperactive (and then treated with amphetamines).
To be sure, technology gives us access to information and meaningful connections to family, friends and colleagues. However, by and large, the Internet today is primarily used for purposes of self-indulgence. The dirty little secret driving the rapid explosion of the Internet is personal shopping and pornography. When you consider these uses, technology ends up contributing to increased isolation by taking opportunities away for direct social contact. Moreover, it makes it easier to engage in our newest object of worship–materialism. As a result, our lives have become not only hurried, but also poverty-stricken in spirit and meaning. As therapists we know well that masking the emptiness with busyness, depression with mania or meaninglessness with over scheduling does not make the problem go away. It only makes it worse.
With our blind acceptance of technology as our new millennium messiah, we have come to believe that speed and progress are the same. Decelerating or slowing down seems like a failure. As journalist Tom Mahon and others have observed, the pressure is to go high tech, virtual and faster or risk being associated with the flat earth society.
Conducting Therapy In The Culture Of Speed
Conducting psychotherapy with people hooked on the fast track is a complex task. Even within the walls of our offices, where thoughtfulness and contemplation are supposed to reign, we witness a growing impatience and obsession with speed on both sides of the couch. Therapists have been hard at work finding ways to speed up the healing process. In recent years there has been an explosion of numerous new treatments that promise super fast cures for emotional problems. Our professional literature is filled with new courses and book titles, such as “Depth Oriented Brief Therapy,” “Single Session Therapy,” “Time Limited Treatment for Personality Disorders,” “Rapid Eye, Rapid Release” and “Better, Deeper and Enduring Brief Therapy.”
Several factors seem to be at play in rushing the therapeutic process. The most obvious one is managed care’s focus on cutting costs through brief therapy. The second factor is therapists’ sincere efforts to help clients in the most efficient way to reduce unnecessary suffering. As a result, many therapists have turned to more symptom reduction, behavior modification, cognitive restructuring, solution-oriented and other short- term approaches. The third factor is the joining of the forces of the psycho-pharmaceutical industry and psychiatry to reduce the source of all suffering to the biological level. Psychotropic drugs promise almost instant cures for depression, anxiety, insomnia, phobias and almost any other human ailment. This inevitably leads to the quick pill-type solution while filling the coffers of the drug companies and medicating psychiatrists. Financial pressure is the fourth element in therapists turning to quick fixes. Many therapists wish to financially ride the latest quick fix fad, not because it is helpful but because it sells. Finally, the fast paced culture at large and people’s increasing impatience and desire for instant gratification have also put intense pressure on therapists to provide quick and tangible results.
While many therapists have not elected to speed up at all cost and are able to employ long or short term work as necessary, regretfully many other therapists have chosen to permanently stay in fast gear. Soulful discussions about the meaning of our lives, the nature of our spiritual paths or the significance of a trauma seem to be replaced by some of these “quick-fix” approaches. Some of the new therapeutic approaches offer to “cure emotional problems within minutes” and even promise to change a personality in a couple of sessions. In essence, these therapists are offering a treatment that reinforces the problem.
Re-Thinking The “Time Is Money” Idea
Sometimes, I wonder if I am wasting my time when I daydream. I probably could save a couple of hours a year if I didn’t spend the time buckling my seat belt. I could save even more time if I stop watching sunsets. If I instead invested all my meditating and yoga time in reading stock market reports of high yield, aggressively managed mutual funds, I might be able to retire earlier. Then I could pursue my spiritual practices on a FULL TIME basis!
We are all familiar with the saying “time is money.” The truth is that time is very different from money. Unlike money, time cannot be banked, saved, recycled, invested, or put it in an IRA for old age. Time is one of the items that money does not seem to buy. In reality, it seems the more money one has, the less time one usually has. Time availability, or the lack thereof, has actually become a measure of one’s status.
Our fast paced culture has indoctrinated us to look at time as something to capture, control and watch closely. Most people believe that there is only one type of time–Kronos time–which is chronological, linear and measured by the clock by which we live. Other cultures live in more varied ways and periodically shift to Kyros time–or sacred time–often experienced during rituals and altered states of consciousness, wherein time stands still.
Surprisingly, besides “frantic-speedy-hectic” time, we can experience time in other ways, such as “Kodak moments” where time stands still as when witnessing a rainbow or even a home run. Tuning into “seasonal-circular” time will help us be in sync with the cycles of life. “Natural-harmonious” time takes place when we make love or grieve. We tap into “reflective-contemplative” time when we practice meditation and prayer. The concept of “elapsed time” is with us at some level every moment of every day as we tick down to the last moments of our lives before death arrives. As technology advances and the pace of life speeds up the modern world has become famished for time.
Shifting Gears – Shifting Consciousness
Against the immense cultural pressures to speed up, I am working hard at balancing my life and protecting my non- virtual life. I never see clients at night or on the weekends because I have designated this as family and community time. I am intentional about keeping the Tuesday date night with my beloved wife and Sunday breakfast with my friend. I believe that I can sprint on the basketball court only as long as I keep up with my Yoga routines.
I truly believe that making changes in our professional and personal lives is the key to our sanity, health and sense of meaning in the new millennium. We need to try to balance surfing the Internet and surfing the Inner-Net. There is an achievable equilibrium between watching sunsets and watching online trading, between buying locally and using e-commerce, and between getting together with friends and spending time in chat rooms. By learning how to discipline ourselves to turn off the machines, we can free ourselves from feeling like victims of technology. After all, we are its creator and it is our responsibility and within our power to decide consciously how to use it.
As therapists we must not join or blindly follow the cultural trends simply because they are now available. Critical thinking and reflecting on the moral and ethical implications of technology should guide our values and how we work, rather than financial interest, cultural pressures or the path of least resistance. Our clients deserve to be treated, not according to the latest fad or method, but rather according to whom they are and the issues with which they are struggling. We serve our clients best if we use a wide range of approaches, skills and orientations and employ interventions that provide the best fit for each client.
My own clinical work ranges from a single session, cognitive tune up to long-term psychodynamic therapy… from several years of existential exploration on how to live and how to die to a couple of months of systems approach with a newly married couple. While finding the meaning of one’s life or identifying one’s spiritual path or one’s vocation may take a very long time, helping parents deal with a toddler’s tantrums may take very little time.
One of our biggest challenges is to find ways to live and thrive in Age of Technology in a human and soulful way. Moral, ethical and spiritual considerations should accompany our evaluation of everything from therapeutic interventions to technological developments. This essay is an invitation to us all to find ways to deepen our capacity to surf the Inner-net and to seek balance between speed and stillness, high and low tech and the real and the virtual. Bringing responsibility, morality and spirituality into the technological realm is one of the biggest challenges of today’s world. Bringing these elements into our practices is where healing begins.
- Gleick, James. 1999, Faster: The acceleration of just about everything. New York: Pantheon Books
- Mahon, Tom at http://www.reconnecting.com