Updated: May 13, 2020
We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
Cuz we’re ordinary people
Maybe we should take it slow
Take it slow
- John Legend, "Ordinary People"
I had written a post for this week about a completely different topic, and then I had a bodywork experience over the weekend that nudged all other thoughts from my mind. I did a shoulder workout that involved a few simple movements, done really slowly with great awareness. I felt like a bodybuilder doing reps with hundreds of pounds of weight (full disclosure: I have no idea what that actually feels like). I am sore. I am strong. I can almost do one push-up, maybe.
So then my thoughts drifted to John Legend, which (more full disclosure) is an almost-daily occurrence. I thought about his treatise on bodywork, the song “Ordinary People." He speaks to people doing workouts, addressing chronic pain, building up endurance or strength for their favorite activities, and tells us that “maybe we should take it slow.” Yes, John!
There are numerous benefits to doing things slowly, but the main one I have noticed is that it allows me to build awareness. SBC guru Jay told me going slowly is, in fact, the absolute key to building awareness. It’s the only way you can feel all the little pieces and how they link together, as well as notice all the pieces that are doing too much or not doing what they should be.
Growing up as a competitive runner (further disclosure: not a *very* competitive one), my training philosophy was basically to dart out the front door for a run and then maybe do a bit of stretching afterward... you know, if I felt like it. I liked to just GO, not think about any of it too much. As a result of my lack of awareness, I’ve dealt with various injuries that have kept me from running for months at a time, plus other physical issues that have affected my singing and breathing.
But... but it feels good to be active! And, added bonus, jumping from one activity to another is a useful distraction from the difficult parts of life. It can be uncomfortable to sit with sensations and thoughts, to move slowly through the sticky stuff. However, I find that fully embracing the sticky stuff allows me to gradually unstick it. With my shoulder workout the other day, just lifting my arms overhead was sort of glitchy and halting the first time I did it, but by the end of my workout I could do that motion smoothly and evenly. And I could feel strength building alongside the free motion.
The idea of doing things slowly also brings to mind an episode of Malcolm Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History. The episode in question is called Puzzle Rush and it discusses a theory that there are two types of people: hares, who process things quickly and excel under time pressure; and tortoises, who take more time to deeply understand something. Both ways of processing are valid and useful, but we have societal systems that reward one or the other, sometimes seemingly arbitrarily.
In one of Gladwell's examples, he takes the LSAT exam for entrance to law school. The exam features short time limits for each individual section, forcing people to read and process extremely quickly and rule out the worst answer options before making final guesses. The exam is set up for hares. But very successful people in the world of law, specifically judges and law clerks, are tortoises - able to read slowly and deeply, comprehending dense material and making connections. Those people may or may not also have the separate ability to function as hares in order to score well on the LSAT, so we have an exam set up to reward only one way of thinking productively, and perhaps not even the most relevant one.
I think many aspects of modern western culture are set up for or by hares. We value speed and efficiency - think social media posts + headline shares rather than in-depth articles, or looking for the best 7-minute workout rather than balancing physical awareness + activity throughout the day with time spent sitting at a desk. I have always prided myself on being a hare, able to understand things quickly and dart out the door and run whenever I felt like it. But it turns out, many of the insights that have changed my life most dramatically have come after deep contemplation and time spent in the darkness of intense thought. And I can only run easily and healthily if I spend time doing slow warm-ups and cool-downs.
Opera singers may feel as though all of our activity has been pulled out from under us and we are being forced to slow down, which is not a happy starting place. But this is an opportunity to approach things as tortoises do - to take a step back and look deeply and analytically at our pursuits. Perhaps we’ll find hidden benefits. This New York Times article from last year makes the case for doing nothing. The ultimate in slowness.
So how will you slow down and sit in the sticky stuff today? Will you build awareness of a part of your body or emotional landscape? Will you investigate and support a local organization that is doing work for victims of domestic violence or feeding some of the millions of folks who are out of work? There are sticky parts inside of us and also all around our world, waiting to be addressed with care and attention, the tortoise way.
My slow-down tactic for today is to spend some time with my neck, stretching and resetting, and then to take that awareness into a singing practice session. I also plan to take a walk with no phone or agenda, following the advice from the above NYTimes article.
I believe we are all a combination of the tortoise and the hare, and this is a moment for all of us "ordinary people" to really consider slowing down.
Are you more naturally a tortoise or a hare? What have you noticed that makes slowing down doable or particularly difficult? I’d love to hear your ideas on taking it slow in the comments!