The Pace of Change

Yesterday, as I was listening to BBC Radio 4, I heard a very cogent argument for going on personal retreat. For myself, I need no argument for taking retreats, as I have done so numerous times. But one only need get behind the wheel, join a queue in a supermarket or visit a busy restaurant at lunchtime, and you will certainly see many people who would benefit from a retreat–if only for a few days. It should also be stated that retreats need not be faith-based.

Alongside the notion of retreat, I started musing about today’s pace of change, which is largely driven by technology. Had we lived a thousand years ago, we probably would have lived our entire lives without one significant change in technology as regards its impact on individual lives. Today, with our many mobile devices, we are never out of touch with family, friends, work, robo-calls, etc. News flashes tell us of tragedies half-a-world away, within minutes of their happening. There is more information in the Sunday Times (NY or London–you choose!) than the average literate person would have read in an entire lifetime in the Middle Ages. However, our brains are relatively the same size and our nervous sytems haven’t changed significantly. Computers double in speed roughly every four months–but not our nervous systems! Go to any decent bookshop and look at the number of self-help and how to manage stress books. It’s a growth industry.

I can still remember when my paternal grandfather took a car journey with our family on an interstate highway for the first time. He was totally flummoxed by the idea of all cars going in the same direction in both lanes! When he stepped into our new home, he felt something soft underfoot and checked the bottoms of both shoes–he had mistaken wall-to-wall carpet for cow dung! Grandpa had been born within a year of Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn and the British debacle with the Zulus in South Africa. He died a year and a bit after humanity set foot on the moon. In between came motor cars, telephones, air travel, two world wars, computers and more. No wonder he was happy to stay on the farm and not venture out! I saw similar reactions when I worked as a chaplain in a pre-release prison unit. All of the men had spent upwards of 25 years removed from society. It’s not surpising that so many committed infractions in order to go back ‘inside.’ They were literally ‘out of time.’

Check out these words by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) from 9 centuries ago: “Flee for a while from your tasks, hide yourself for a little space from the turmoil of your thoughts. Come, cast aside your burdensome cares, and put aside your laborious  pursuits. For a little while give your time to God, and rest in him for a little while. Enter into the inner chamber of your mind, shut out all things save God and whatever may aid you in seeking God; and having barred the door of your chamber, seek him.” I am not sure what sorts of stresses people had in the 11th/12th centuries, but certainly it was a time when much work was literally back-breaking, medical care was minimal, and even learned clergy like Anselm lived in stone-cold (literally) monasteries with one “warming room.”

Even if the pace of change in the Middle Ages was more measured than what we experience today, it is clear from Anselm’s words that all of us could benefit by taking time out from the drivenness of life. We can all benefit by taking time away from our electronic masters and re-set our minds and emotions with physical, mental and spiritual refreshment.

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