The world comes at us fast. Thoroughly colonized by industrial-strength speed and efficiency. We rush to keep up with innovation because it promises more, faster, and with less work. Nothing less than a reversal of the Fall. The 21st-century pace has grown incredibly frenetic, yet it’s all but invisible to us. In a given day, we can glance up from our high-speed devices animated by Blazing-Fast™ Wi-Fi long enough to bolt down a forkful of mass-produced calories before scurrying out the door to our car that explodes along at 4,000 revolutions per minute to whisk us through blurred miles to attend the job we secured by dashing off a resume in response to a posting that called for a dynamic self-starter who generates actionable insights in a fast-paced environment, and, once there, we power through the day coordinating far-flung collaborators and tight deadlines using instant messaging while we simultaneously juggle a handful of media platforms each demanding a different persona which we shuffle through seamlessly to offer immediate and uninterrupted opining on a news cycle fueled by outrage that flies off the rails with harried predictability. And all of this happens as caffeine quickens our pulse to keep us buzzing beyond what a quick night’s sleep ought to bear.
In between, we quicken every dead moment checking for dopamine-resurrecting icons of digital affirmation. The thought of stillness tugging at the cold hook in our heart and pulling our attention inward must alarms us. This, all this, we do as though it were automatic. Unblinking in the gale.Unlike the pitcher, the gardener cannot rely on her own strength to get her very far. Sure, there’s work to do that employs her body and its care and skill, but so much of her work depends on creation doing what it already does. Can she, after all, cause a seed to sprout?
We are drawn to the frenetic pace of modern life like pilgrims searching for a holy land. We bear within us the restless depths of ones with a sense of unease at the cosmic level. The restlessness makes us vulnerable. There is a gap between the cutting edge and what could yet be possible and our lean and hungry discontent prowls in that gap like a fox on a high winter plain. Ever so sly, it lures us along with the promise of good life if we will submit to whatever our restlessness stirs up in the world. Meanwhile, it redefines goodness to cover up each failed promise. But, who doesn’t want a good life? So we chase our discontent as it leads us not toward good but merely toward better and often toward only different. The faster we pursue, the quicker it eludes, and we pursue all the faster.
We accept all of this because one day we might discover the right tech and the true seat of identity to make the good life without having to confront our dissatisfaction with who we are and the work it takes to make our way in the world. All year long, we keep the feverish pace. We have laid ourselves before a terrible mercy.
This is less than ideal. At this speed, we can only react to the endless torrent of change. We cannot measure its effect because in a moment’ pause, the world slips two or three iterations downstream. But, pause we must. Exhaustion stalks us. Shallow thought does not sustain us. In our hyper-kinetic, hyper-connected culture, we need a better mercy. We need summertime.
The Living Is Easy
To a school kid, summertime is mythic. Launched out of the schoolhouse like a cannonball into a languid infinity of unbounded time. Bill Watterson captured this quintessential essence perhaps as well as any American artist ever has. In his work, the world of Calvin and Hobbes, summertime is an endless wood criss-crossed with sunken creek beds and hollow logs (often laying across those creek beds like a bridge). It is backyards and tree houses and garden hoses and treasure maps. It is surrendered to the power of the imagination. To roaming dinosaurs and invading alien hordes fought back by heroic six-year-old derring-do.
In one strip, reclining against a hundred-year oak Hobbes says,
“You know what I like about summer days?
They’re just made for doing things…
Even if it’s nothing.”
Calvin, “Especially if it’s nothing.”
What if we chose to be un-demandable for a while? If we could slow down and stop looking around corners for danger or fortune, we could just look around. Take in the wisdom of creation as it is given. A world buzzing at the height of its annual vitality. See the blue sky and the pale haze of humidity rimming the horizon. Feel the heat lift from your skin as you walk into the shadow of a tree. Breathe in summer blossoms and asphalt on the brink of melting. Listen. It’s summertime, and you can hear the crack of a bat.
Baseball is perhaps the most American of summer pastimes. Slow if ever a game was. Most of a baseball game happens between two players. The pitcher and the batter play a chess match. Each tries to guess the other’s next move in order to best thwart it. Because of this mental duel, pitchers are especially adept at poking and prodding creation to see what they can make happen.
In the early days, pitchers mostly just threw the ball as hard as they could. They would fling their leg up to build up potential energy and hurl it forward so that its forward momentum would course through their entire body to their shoulder, up their arm, and out as kinetic energy imparted on the ball. A good pitch involves the whole machine of the body working as a fluid unit.
Every pitcher, regardless of skill or strength, faces the same nemesis. Drag. As they push the ball through the air, the air pushes back. Sometime in the late 1800s, certain clever hurlers began to notice that this wind resistance wasn’t necessarily a bug but a feature. They noticed that a spinning ball bent down faster than gravity could pull and this confused batters. The curveball was born.
The physics of a curveball are kind of fascinating. The top of the ball is spinning forward at nearly 3,000 RPM. To get a sense of what that means, imagine the ball spinning that fast on the ground. It would take off at 25 miles per hour. That’s a lot of spin, but remember that the pitcher has also pushed the entire ball forward through the air at maybe 70–75 miles per hour. This combination of spin and forward velocity creates pressure on top of the ball. Meanwhile, the bottom of the ball is spinning backward and creating low air pressure. The top pressure wins out and the baseball curves.
Taken on its own, this process of discovery is beautiful. Pitchers back in the late 1800s did not know anything about the physics involved. In fact, debate raged until the 1940s as to whether a curveball actually curved or was simply an optical illusion. Those early pitchers took creation as it was given and found something amazing. Still, something here unsettles one looking to slow down.
You can only delight in the beauty of a curveball for so long before its intent creeps in at the edges. It is meant to stymie. In a pitcher’s duel to outwit and outdo the nemesis at the plate we see the haunt of our lean and hungry discontent. Baseball, by the way, is one game Calvin would have nothing to do with. He saw a ball hurled at his head in competition as a fanged monster out to devour him. It was no fun. A reminder of an intrusive world.
Slowing down has a vital purpose. It is not to catch our breath in order to better serve the machine upon our return. Summertime is a precious opportunity to completely re-think pace. A chance to stand up from the batter-like crouch of one who has surrendered to the endless accept, react, compete cycle of The Way Things Are. We compete as though life itself were going out of stock. Maybe not as directly as a pitcher and a batter trying to win the day at the other’s expense, but close. Look at the hoops we jump through to keep ourselves marketable. The late-night emails we answer. The moments we sacrifice to the intrusion of the screen. The terms and conditions we accept to stay available and so prove ourselves worthy.
What portion of our rest, to say nothing of our conscience, do we withhold from the demands of the global economy and the mass culture? Any?
Let’s start over. Dismiss the automatic embrace of whatever rules and prizes are entombed in The Way Things Are and instead weigh our demandedness against health and calling. Let’s look sidelong at the whole concept of scarcity and desperation.
What would we do if we didn’t compete?
Let’s follow Calvin away from the playing field and back out into the sunlit field surrendered to imagination. We walk a low fence row as insects arc away from our footpath, and we reach a wooden gate. We undo the latch, really just a bit of rope looped around a nail, and lift the free end of the drooping frame so the gate bottom does not drag but whispers through the tips of the grass. And we step into the garden. The place we cultivate.
The work of the gardener starts like that of the pitcher. Poking and prodding creation to see what can be brought forth. The paths diverge after that. Unlike the pitcher, the gardener cannot rely on her own strength to get her very far. Sure, there’s work to do that employs her body and its care and skill, but so much of her work depends on creation doing what it already does. Can she, after all, cause a seed to sprout?
Those seeds. Ah, what genius. They rest in the dark of the ground and when enough time has passed, enough rain has fallen, enough sun has shone, they send down their roots and send up their first tender shoots. Imbibing water activates enzymes that break down tannin into food and the tannin is thick enough so that this food supply reaches the embryo when it’s the right time to germinate. A seed fits a hydrometer, thermometer, air and solar sensors, and a clock into a self-replicating package that can be smaller than the smallest computer. And out of that tiny packet of life comes an abundance that provides not only for the plant itself, but also for the spiders that build webs among its stems, for the bees that drink its nectar, and for the gardener as well who feasts first on the beauty and then on the fruit and often has enough to share with her neighbors.
The gardener cannot make any this happen any more than she could cause the sun to shine. In very practical ways, she must join a creation already in progress and wed her efforts to it. Where the pitcher works to conquer his nemesis through overwhelming skill, the good gardener looks at her counterpart, the land, and wonders how to make it better. It is not combat, though it may be sweaty work. It is a cycle of mutual enrichment. Working in harmony, not defiance, she is at mercy. A state of surrender to provision.
But, she is not dumb. Technology may have given us the tools to understand more about DNA and gene markers, but this was never necessary to tend a flourishing garden. The discernment to choose the best plants from which to harvest seed long predated our knowledge about which genetic mutations made the plants so hardy or fruitful. So, in a very real sense, gardening is a crystallized emblem of the accumulation of wisdom. The plants have their own wisdom and the gardener learns it and adds it to her own… her knowledge of how fast is too fast, of how much is too much, both for the soil and for her. As wisdom guides and restrains skill, a rhythm develops of patience and perseverance ending in health.
It comes down to this. God made this very good world and put us in it. We fell in that first garden and now everything is subject to frustration yet shot through with grace. Our cosmic unease has a true root and it can lead us to desperate self-sufficiency. Which accomplishes a lot. Creation is so alarmingly fruitful even our error can grow. But, frustration can also lead us to seek hard after grace. When it comes to understanding and living in creation, we can work with God. Studying how He made the world and us and surrendering to His provision. Or we can work against Him. Against each other. Against even ourselves. It all comes down to fruit.
We have already looked at the fruit of discontent. Skillful hurry. What we are hurrying to get to next is anybody’s guess. Money. Power. Victory. None of these things has an end. What is total money? Absolute power? Final victory? Broken promises. The means to further hurry and the concurrent loss of deep reflection to process both discontent and its antidote, hope.
The slow fruit of deep reflection—which we must note cannot happen apart from deep prayer—is cultivating only the best things, the things that lead the most life. It is studying creation, including our own capacity and limits viewed honestly. Humbly. To embrace this discernment, we have to change the way we measure good life. Not in economic advancement or relative painlessness, but in depth of allegiance to one another and more so to our mutual Creator. We were not made for the endless hastening pursuit of receding satisfaction. We were made to seek and to find.
We have long resented the work of living and being in the world and wondered if there weren’t a better way to get the job done. There isn’t. There has always been the one good way. Summertime gives us the chance to stop, look around, and find it again. Cultivate the best seeds that sprout and grow in life-giving rhythm. When we take the fruit of this kind of summertime out of the garden, it will feed us through the winter when the lean and hungry discontent stalks us again. Such wisdom is imperishable, such delight is worth the slowing.