Stop and Smell the Roses.

Posted: April 17, 2012 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty

When I discuss urban living with my students, and ask them to compare city living to small-town living, they usually point out the fact that city living is more violent, cold and impersonal than village life.  Now, for people growing up in Chicago, ‘small town’ has a pretty wide range of meanings.  A ‘small town’ for today’s Chicagoans might be anything from a tiny rural community to a major suburb.   To put things into perspective, in 1790, the largest city in the nascent United States was Philadelphia with 42,000 people.  To Chicagoans today, 42,000 people is a single neighborhood, and the fact that social critics in the early Republic crowed about the immorality, the corruption, and bustle of 18th century Philly seems laughable and naïve.

 The question then: Is city life really colder than small town life, or is this just a widely accepted myth?  I actually think it is true, though I think the reason for this is different from what most people believe.  Students usually point to the anonymity of urban living as the reason for the lack of fellow-feeling.  The number of people living in a crowded area seems like the obvious reason, and throughout history, this impersonality has often been pointed out as a source of heartlessness.  Add this to corruption, disease, and poverty, and perhaps it is no wonder that American politicians have often pointed to the city as the center of sin.  Famously anti-urban Thomas Jefferson said “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural….”

 Urban cruelty seems most obvious when fellow citizens in need are simply ignored. Everyone has heard the stories about city-dwellers paying no mind to people lying on the street, and instead, stepping over those that requires assistance.  These are stories you don’t usually associate with small towns.  Why is it so different in the big city?

Anonymity is important, but I think just as central is our modern obsession with time.  Time is our most ‘valuable commodity’.  We live in a fast-paced world, which gets faster every day.  The linguist George Lakoff displayed the centrality of time to American’s thirty years ago, by studying the many metaphors we have equating time and money.  Think about all the instances in which you automatically link time and money in your speech: “You wasted my time.” “How do you spend your time?” “Invest some time in me.”

A forty year old study conducted by two psychologists at Princeton University, C.D. Bateson and J.M. Darley, displays how our concern with time can affect our ethical behavior. The two psychologists invited 40 seminary students to present a lecture on the New Testament story of the ‘Good Samaritan’.  The catch was the graduate students had to present this lecture on the far end of their campus.  For some of these students, they were informed they had a great deal of time to get to the lecture hall (low hurry).  A second group (medium hurry) were informed they had to rush to get there on time; lastly, a third group (high hurry) were told they were already late, but still had to conduct the lecture.  Little did these students know, the experiment was actually to see if they would help a stranger in need.

On the way across campus, each student crossed paths with an anonymous man in physical distress. As students well versed in Judeo-Christian ethics, you may expect that they would stop and help the man. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.  63% of the students in ‘low hurry’ group helped the man; 45% in ‘medium hurry’ helped; only 10% in ‘high hurry’ helped.  This was, and still is, a shocking finding.  Even for intelligent, ‘morally educated’, ‘good’ people, the strain of time can cause them to be unethical.

Forty years have now passed since this experiment, and to say that our pace of life has quickened would be an understatement.  We now live in a world in which speed is not just a luxury, it is an absolute necessity. Speed is virtue, and patience is a waste.  In the big city, this is truer than ever, and studies now show that the bigger the city, the faster the pace of life. Unfortunately, with this quickened pace, the “Good Samaritan” seem to be an endangered species.


  1. PG says:

    Your post reminds me of Chuck Klosterman’s essay “The Amazing McNugget Diet” in which he says, “[Americans] are obsessed with speed. We are obsessed with efficiency. In simplest terms, we are obsessed by the desire to accelerate every element of our existence in a futile attempt to experience as much life as we can in the shortest possible time.We have all entered a race to devour the largest volume of gratification before it kills us.” Speed and time are central to our lives.

    I wonder, though, if the faster pace of the city when compared to suburban or rural isn’t partly an illusion. For example, look around the Loop at noon during a weekday and there are people everywhere. Look at my neighborhood in the rural-ish far southwest suburbs at noon, and you can hear a pin drop it’s so quiet and motionless. But that’s not because there is a slower pace of life; it’s because the generalized speed and fight against time of our society draws people from the suburbs out of their environment to other places. I’m in the city working. My neighbor the cop is in another town on his beat. My other neighbor the podiatrist is elsewhere at his practice. Or perhaps we just aren’t far enough outside the grasps of one of the world’s largest cities to have avoided that speed/time crunch.

  2. KS says:

    I also believe that it is largely a cultural issue. A friend from Ghana once told me that if you see a friend as you are, say, on your way to work, the curtesy is to be a few minutes late for work rather than rush your greeting. In Asian cultures, such as Korea, you will delay your own deadlines and priorities in order to respond to someone in need-whether that person is a class mate or your mother. I don’t even know how many countries practice siestas– a practice which heeds the body’s natural healing and restorative process. No, I think the sense of priorities instilled by the cultures we live in, be they large, small, urban, or suburban dictate how we deal with a person in need or even a kiss goodby.

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