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Inside the loop of our own thoughts
25 October 1999

Even at my pace, walking the labyrinth outside Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is only a 20-minute exercise. Still, you'd be surprised how many of the walkers don't seem to have enough patience to finish.

By design, the route is meant to be done as a loop: The path from starting point to center provides time for contemplation; at the center, one pauses to think things through; retracing the path back out is intended to bring a sense of unity. Even so, most folks seem to walk it one direction only, usually abandoning the path after they have walked in, leaving in a random fashion.

There is only one path in and out - that is the purpose, after all - yet walkers often don't follow it. Some stand still and stare at the patterned diagram in the tiles, looking for a shortcut or alternative route, then leave rather than follow along in order. Others seem to lose patience shortly after starting, perhaps thinking, "I can see the end from here, so why bother walking along some path?" Others - more goal directed, one imagines - complete the whole route but inexplicably hurry along the way. Some chatter while they walk, uncomfortable with 15 minutes of silence.

There is no kinder way to say it: that's time sickness.

The labyrinth is attractive specifically because it demands a little patience and persistence. Unlike its cousin, the maze, a labyrinth contains no false turns or dead ends. It's a symbolic pilgrimage, not a puzzle. Lines drawn on the floor make the route obvious, asking only that the walker follow them from start to finish. The idea of following a disciplined path as an aid to contemplation is an ancient one, attributed to Native American, Greek, Celtic and Mayan traditions, as well as Christianity. (The two labyrinths at Grace Cathedral are replicas of a famous circuit from Chartres Cathedral in France.)

But while Earth still spins around once in 24 hours, time isn't the same today as it was when Chartres was being built 800 years ago. Modern life has accelerated in nearly every respect, culminating in the contemporary world of Instant Internet Everything, 24/7: faster stock trading, faster retailing, faster mail, faster research, faster rumors.

The acceleration factor is evident in our entertainments, as well. After walking the Grace labyrinth last weekend, I went to the opera, and found myself wondering how long modern audiences will put up with the length and pace of most performances. In our fast-forward, quit-edit world, the idea of entertainment unfolding at a deliberate pace seems as quaint as a black-and-white TV set.

There are often extended periods in most operas when nothing much happens. Unlike a 60-minute CD of "Tosca" highlights, an actual performance of Puccini's work will wander through scenes of character development and musical progression that don't include a single tune worth humming. These interstices between hit numbers are as essential to the Big Moments as the setting is to a diamond ring, providing a context for displaying the brilliance, a utilitarian setting in which the flashy art takes place.

But appreciating the setting takes patience, an attribute we find increasingly in short supply these days. A friend always refers to the television show "ER" as "short attention span theater" because of the way it bounces from theme to theme, making few demands of sustained concentration. He might also note that "ER" is well-developed drama compared with most of the bite-sized fare on TV.

Is there some natural pace or rhythm at which human lives are intended to be lived? Does our culture of constant acceleration stretch us beyond our natural limits, or merely boost us into higher orbit? Why would we argue that a four-hour opera is artistically superior to a music video with 100 scenes in four minutes?

Answers surely will unfold in their own time. The question may be whether we are patient enough to notice when they emerge.

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