David Foster Wallace’s short story anthology, “Girl with Curious Hair,” rested beneath my sunburnt face as I lay belly-down beneath a volleyball net at the School for Field Studies in Rhotia, Tanzania. Here, even amid the shrieks emitted from the students-versus-staff soccer game the next field over, I was met with a rather unfamiliar sensation: the ability to effortlessly follow a storyline. A usually slow reader with the tendency to zone out and backtrack mid-story, I found myself whipping through Wallace’s satirical prose in personal record time, particularly enjoying the cohesiveness of his words as they circled my brain.
Maybe I was especially enthralled by these stories, my enhanced focus a product of elevated interest. My actual hypothesis, however, lies within the cultural manifestations of the Swahili phrase pole pole.
Closely translating to the English word “slowly,” pole pole is a cornerstone of Tanzanian lifestyle and, likewise, a breath of fresh air from the undying bustle of American culture. Mealtimes in Rhotia were lengthy and regarded as crucial, community-building social hours. Class start times listed on daily schedules were treated only as loose estimates. Assignment deadlines were spaced out evenly and fairly. And though almost every day was filled with some sort of field exercise or research protocol, I couldn’t help but feel as though the free time allotted to me was being utilized in this productive and streamlined way I’d never experienced before.
I avoided procrastination on homework and studying. I read (and finished!) books that held a nuanced clarity to me. I exercised each morning, indulged in every morsel of food on my plate (this is my default setting) and practiced slow, mindful eating while conversing with friends (this is not). I slept seven to eight hours per night and was attentive and engaged during field activities and lectures, despite my rash decision to test the waters of coffee sobriety while abroad. I felt both mentally and physically healthier than I had in a long while and wondered how my own shifting definition of productivity would affect the usual fast pace of my life back home.
Fast forward a couple of weeks to yesterday morning.
Jack Johnson’s “Inaudible Melodies” blared increasingly louder in my eardrums as I pumped up the volume on my headphones with every escaped ounce of focus. Slow down everybody, you’re moving too fast, Johnson crooned into my pounding ears, which had been forced to accept his “inaudible melody” as a highly audible one. I’ve been playing this song frequently since my arrival home from Tanzania as a reminder to myself to slow down and live a little more pole pole and, quite frankly, it has not been working.
As I pattered away on my laptop keys at an overpriced coffee shop in Valparaiso, Indiana, pipe dreams of completing two job applications within the hour swarmed my caffeine-powered mind. I had a meeting with a local environmental nonprofit manager at noon, because apparently the disingenuous art of networking was something in which I was now proficient. I had to gather my belongings and put my (nonexistent) spatial intelligence to the ultimate test with the dreaded back-to-school car-packing. I had to make my rounds through town to bid goodbye to childhood friends in the area. These self-induced deadlines settled heavily in my gut, and I was met again with the chronic stress and panic that promptly enters my body in early September and doesn’t leave until late April.
I didn’t get the cover letters done within the hour, so I decided to pity myself with a painstaking, 45-minute-long scroll through my Facebook newsfeed. After emerging from this mental abyss, I realized I was about to return to a default setting of laziness disguised as productivity. Panicked, sloppy, deadline-scraping work reunited me with an old friend: intermittent mindless activity.
Watching as a man in a navy business suit at the corner table slipped into a multi-tasking frenzy, speaking corporate jargon into his Bluetooth headset while ferociously typing on his MacBook Pro, I entertained the notion that perhaps we are always disguising something in attempting to keep up in the race that is American society.
Perhaps we aren’t disguising it, but running from it. Is the hunger to push on and up in such an urgent and exhausting manner actually inhibiting our ability to evade a default laziness? What would happen if we flipped the paradigm on productivity, gauging “productive” action based on how well-balanced it leaves the different facets of our health? Though the desire to achieve remains an innate aspect of the human state, there is something rather inorganic about the game of overworking we’ve societally constructed for ourselves.
And yes: It feels inappropriate to exclusively romanticize the workings of other cultures while exclusively degrading this one. I am frequently overwhelmed by the wealth of opportunities available to me, a privilege-loaded sentiment deserving of gratitude. Still, as that familiar sense of chronic urgency reared its ugly head yesterday, I couldn’t help but wonder about the possible positive effects of the pole pole lifestyle on overall health — and, more specifically, on the health of college students.
It is no secret that college students in the United States, more than many other leading academic countries, face sizable rates of mental illness. While a 2014 article dubbed University of Michigan freshmen among the top 28 happiest college students in America, I can’t help but take issue with the fact that such studies are based primarily off freshmen retention rates rather than actual health and wellness considerations.
Though I feel inevitably bound to get at least semi-sucked into the fast pace of college life this year, I hope to again, for health’s sake, strike some version of the balance fostered by a lifestyle to which I was lucky to gain exposure this summer. However, I’ll probably need to discover a more plausible mechanism of engaging with pole pole than simply listening to Jack Johnson songs on repeat.
Josie Tolin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.