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I wrote a considerable part of the following text during a stay in Tessin, the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, in the summer holidays, but, ironically, I was unable to finish it till now because of a severe bout of Urgency. Whats more, in the helter-skelter of going back to work (and hardly resurfacing) I even lost my notes on cures to urgency. Dont laugh. Its not so funny. Well maybe it is a bit comical, all the same
Urgency - a new plague?
Time is a mysterious thing. On paper we have more and more of it as work hours diminish and timesaving gadgets free us from routine chores. Yet in practice few people have the impression they have more time. Quite the contrary! They are bowled off their feet by a whirlwind of urgency that knows no end. Could it be that Urgency is an as-yet-unidentified illness that fundamentally attacks the quality of our life and finally saps our physical health and spiritual wellbeing?
A new illness?
When we say that an activity is urgent, what do we imply? Amongst other things, the dictionary mentions calling for immediate attention. Stemming from the word urge, it carries undertones of insistence, excitement, haste and impulsiveness. When something is labelled urgent, it cant wait. It has to be done before all else. In urgency there is always a certain excitement but at the same time there is a threat. If we dont act immediately, nasty consequences will follow. If we are truthful with ourselves, however, much of what we treat as urgent isnt so vital. In fact it is a question of values, but more about that later. So what are the symptoms of Urgency?
One of the major symptoms of Urgency is the imperative need for instant gratification. The urgent cant wait, nor can the person suffering from Urgency. There is no doubt a parallel to be drawn between the imperativeness of urgency and that that the market place strives to foster in us by encouraging us to seek instant satisfaction of our desires. In the case of Urgency, rather like a drug, we become dependent on urgency itself.
An inflated sense of identity
Another important symptom of Urgency is the inflated sense of identity it brings. Think of the young start-up manager rushing from meeting to meeting, an organiser in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, with an immense feeling of self-importance and god-given mission. Without resembling that caricature, many of us, whether it be in work or at home, do live in a condition of permanent urgency and feel excited, if not self-important, because of the intensity of what we do.
A loss of contact with reality
A severe attack of Urgency leaves the persons judgement severely impaired. Handling the urgent becomes the uppermost of priorities to the detriment of all other values. Those who suffer from Urgency certainly have no time to reflect on the whys and wherefores of their acts. They must act and act quickly before the next urgent call reaches them. You cannot reason with those suffering from Urgency because Urgency has its own internal rock-solid logic that imprisons them, leaving no place for other perspectives.
A certain will to self-destruction
One of the interesting facets of Urgency is the way it grows and develops. There is a tendency on the part of those suffering from Urgency to put off urgent tasks and flirt with disaster. In continually shortening the time available to respond to urgent tasks, they heighten their feeling of urgency by accumulating an increasing backlog and with it a growing anxiety. In this way, there is a self-imposed escalation of the threat that lurks behind the urgent (those horrible things that will happen to us if we dont perform in time) that seems strangely akin to a will to self-destruction.
Those suffering from Urgency feel an urgent need to infect all those around them. How? They force others to think in terms of urgency. If you have ever had to work with someone suffering from Urgency, you will know that the only way to get them to do what you want is to make it seem extremely urgent. They also make frequent urgent demands on all those around them, spreading the disease, until everyone feeds on permanent urgency. Whats more, they give weight to the threat behind urgency by becoming the agents of that threat. They threaten us directly or indirectly to have us do the work.
In advanced stages, Urgency resembles an aimless somnambulism. In a desperate and generally unconscious attempt not to be swept away by the unending flow of urgent demands on them, many people switch off, as it were, and work slower and slower. Even more characteristically, having refused the urgent, they have no values by which to set priorities. They are aimless and without the slightest spark of inspiration or initiative.
an ill, we do to ourselves?
As we move from one urgent task to the next, our hope may well be to get to the end of the urgency so as to pause and take a breath. But paradoxically, it could well be that by continually giving priority to the urgent we feed the urgency such that it may well never end. It is not possible to counter Urgency by working harder or by being more efficient. Neither get to the roots of Urgency, they only prolong the behaviour behind it.
What could drive us to set ourselves so senselessly under pressure in such a way? Escapism may be one answer. In that frenetic course to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for urgency, are we not akin to those who surround themselves with noise so as not to hear what silence has to say to them? And what do we not want to hear? In running after the urgent we neglect the essential.
An inflation of demands
There is also another problem: that of values. In handling the ever-growing demands on us to act, we generally respond by setting priorities in terms of urgency rather than in terms of other values. If we were to assess the supposedly urgent things we have to do with values other than that of urgency, we would probably discover that they rarely require immediate action, if action at all and that the threat lurking behind urgency is unreal. Lest it be propagated by others under the sway of Urgency.
Two things are required of us if we are to cure Urgency. Firstly, we need to break out of the narrow logic based on urgency and open our perspective to include other values. Secondly, we need to defuse the threat behind the priority given to the urgent. The two go hand in hand. Neither is easy to do.
A quick visit to Alice
In wondering how to confront urgency, Im reminded of a story about Alice who urgently wanted to reach a nearby hill, but every time she left the little house in the direction of the hill, the path twisted and turned only to bring her back to the house. Desperate and desolate after many attempts, she sat on the floor and wept. It was at that moment that the White Rabbit appeared (as they tend to do, quite unwanted and unwelcome) and advised here to head in the opposite direction. She was furious at his stupid advice, but all the same, out of sheer desperation she finally tried it out. Lo and behold, the path that led away from the hill in fact guided here straight to her longed-for destination. Maybe we cannot vanquish urgency by a frontal attack
perhaps we have a better chance slipping quietly out the back door taking a multitude of tiny steps the opposite direction.
The major antidotes to urgency are stillness, silence, simplicity and emptiness. Try walking in a forest, if youre lucky enough to have one nearby, or a park. Stop and listen to the trees. What do they have to say to you? Trees talk very slowly, so youll need some patience. You can also listen to the silence and see if you can hear what is behind it. Most of the secrets of the universe are there, waiting to be heard. Sit down in a quiet place for a moment and cease all movement. Breathe deeply and close your eyes. Youll probably find that your thoughts go hurtling on. Dont worry about it. Its normal. Try singing quietly to yourself or swaying slowly in the wind. Or place both hands flat on your chest and listen to your body through your hands. Pay particular attention to those places that seem tense or that hurt. Send your breath gently through them. Cup your hands over your eyes, shutting out all the light and look out into the warmth and darkness that descend on you. Let that warmth fill your whole body. Follow the rustling of the wind as it gusts in the trees. Fly up to join it and let yourself by borne amongst the leaves of the treetops.
Lots of timeworn, but little-understood, customs can help you. Before eating, run your hands and forearms under icy coldwater. Take your time. Feel the tingling energy that enters your hands, especially in the middle of your palms. Drink the energy of the water through your hands. Before eating, join your hands discretely together - no need for ostentation - and quietly whisper your gratitude for what you are about to eat. Dont eat pre-packed, pre-cooked food, if possible. Industrial food goes hand in hand with urgency. Eat simple food that you have made yourself. Eating begins in process of cooking. Avoid eating in a noisy place. At home, turn off the radio, the television, the CD player, the computer and the telephone. Turn off the lights too, if you can. Urgency feeds on electricity. Cant you hear the buzz? Use candles. Remove all extraneous objects from the table, from the room, from around you. Do not read or write while you eat. And if possible do not talk either. Grant yourself the time, for once. Chew each mouthful at length. Urgency would have us swallow everything whole. Remove the objects that clutter your desk, your living room or your bedroom. Urgency thrives on the accumulation of more or less useless objects. Whenever possible open the windows to let in fresh air. Try to avoid air-conditioning. Even better, get out as much as you can. Before you go to sleep, place you hands over your heart and let out a deep sigh of thanks for the day gone by. Lie quietly in the dark sensing the aches and pains of your body, mentally caressing those parts that hurt with your gentle breath. Wish yourself all the best for the coming day and let yourself drift off into sleep.
Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.
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Created: October 21st, 2002 - Last up-dated: October 21st, 2002