I don’t know how far back memories can go to infancy, but I think that most of us can at least imagine a time before we became aware of time.
When we’re infants the world is a crib, our parents, and the people we rely on to keep us alive. We have no concept of time; we’re not even conscious of the fact that our bodies need food and sleep. As we grow, the world becomes a playground, an endless canvas for our imaginations to explore. Before long, we become aware of the physical limits imposed on us by the outside world through pain, or the guidance of the people who raised us. By then we’re aware of time, although that time is still largely our own. When we play, we get caught up in the joy of it and keeping track of time is the furthest thing from our minds. An afternoon of playing with friends can feel like minutes until you notice the sun is setting and you’re being called home.
When we move into our teens and adulthood, time seems to pull us in different directions. Our lives become a maze of work schedules, class times, romantic and family relationships. Responsibilities impose demands on our time, and before long we end up running at someone else’s speed, usually chasing someone else’s dream.
Whether shaped by culture or life experiences, we all have a rhythm. One person’s rhythm may lead them away from following schedules, toward following their dreams without regard to forethought or safety. Another’s may lead to them working eighteen-hour days and becoming the president of a company. Sometimes those dreams are dissimilar, but either lifestyle can burn a person out. The speed of the modern world puts us into roles we may not have known the consequences of when we began to play them. How many brilliant artists never use their gift because the rhythm of their traditions told them they could only be a complete person by becoming a mother? How many entrepreneurs with amazing ideas are trapped in jobs they hate because the larger rhythm of their cultural background says they need to be the breadwinner of a family at all times and anything else is a pipe dream?
A lot of my own life has been about dancing to someone else’s rhythm. The pattern was set early, from getting up every Sunday morning to accompany my grandfather, a popular Baptist preacher, to church. Because I was a preacher’s kid, there were a lot of expectations on me to be successful, although I had no idea what that meant in general, and definitely not for myself. Regardless, I took the idea of being successful into my working life and my personal life. Looking back, I can recall relationships that I wasn’t really a part of because I was so focused on my next move that I refused to enjoy the moment I was in. I sabotaged a lot of potential relationships and friendships that way, and it’s something I still wrestle with.
We live in a time when admitting you want to find yourself is seen as selfish. Even if you don’t have anyone depending on you, people will still judge you by the images and projections they attach to you. But it’s not fair to move from one phase of your life to another without taking stock of where you’re going. Obligations happen soon enough, and it’s better to enter into them when you’re sure that they’re a responsibility you can handle. I don’t have kids, but everyone I know who does tells me that any selfishness in your character has to be let go of once you’re in control of the well-being of another life.
The same is true for romantic relationships. Whether it’s an emotional connection, dancing, or sex, it’s amazing when two people create a rhythm that builds on itself until you reach a place that satisfies you both. A relationship, a true relationship, is compromise. Anytime you attempt to merge separate personalities and life experiences in the same physical or psychological space, there will be compromise. But before you can compromise, you need to be a complete person, aware of the things you want and stand for. To do that, you need time for self-reflection, however long that takes. Otherwise, you have a situation where one partner feeds off the energy and time of the other partner, until there’s nothing else to give.
A few years ago, I fell in love with an Italian women who was living in the U.S. At times, she would get depressed and tell me she missed the culture she grew up in. She had spent several years in America. We decided it was fair that I experience her way of life, so we moved to Italy. The day after we arrived, I left our apartment to go to the corner store up the street. It was closed, along with most of the other businesses. People were out on the streets talking with friends and family, enjoying the day. A friend of my girlfriend, a lawyer I’d met the previous night, came up to me. He was riding a bicycle, wearing a pinstriped suit with the legs neatly folded above his ankles, showing his socks and expensive-looking shoes. He said in English that he’d just left court and was going to ride to the beach and take a break for a little while.
It was my first experience with the riposo, the Italian version of the siesta, when work stops and people suspend their schedules to rest and center themselves before heading back to finish out the workday. I didn’t understand at first. Later, I realized what an amazing thing it is. I didn’t know anything about the concept of work-life balance, but I was in the middle of a culture built on that. People actually took the time to enjoy the things they worked for. I didn’t know how much I had internalized the American attitude of living to work. When the relationship ended and I returned home, my rhythm had synchronized to the Italian pace of life. I tried to keep a little of that close, but America is a hard place to make that happen if you’re not independently wealthy.
This society isn’t set up for reflection. From our art to the people we idolize, everything about America reinforces the idea of pushing yourself to be the best, to do more, to have it all, whatever “it” is. There’s twenty-four hours in a day, and they all need to be filled with some sort of activity that will get you to the “next level.” If you have a job, you gotta hustle to work. When you get there, you gotta be sure your superiors see you being active. Being productive is beside the point. It’s like American society runs on the fear of falling behind everyone else. Instead of doing something for the pleasure of the thing itself and for your own benefit, everything becomes a race where the only goal is to not be overtaken by your competition.
That’s a dangerous way to live. When you’ve lost yourself in somebody else’s world, you look for ways to reassert yourself, regardless of whether the outlets you choose are positive or negative. You search for external things to get your groove back. Material things. Physical things. Chemical things. That mentality destroys relationships and individuals.
We need to give ourselves room to breathe. That’s easy to say, but not so easy to do if you’re responsible for your own livelihood and the security of a family. But if we don’t do something as a culture to relieve some of the pressure we’re under, a physical or psychological collapse will happen eventually.
The elders in my family had a saying: children can’t wait to grow up, and when they do, they wish they could go back. I didn’t understand it when I was younger, but I do now. Once you’re in, you’re in. But there has to be a way reclaim our rhythm before it’s gone forever.
I’m still trying to reclaim my own. You can’t discover your own pace if you’re following someone else. We need to learn how to make time to live for ourselves before we can give anything to the people we love and care for.
Follow Torraine on Twitter @TorraineWalker