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The other day in the supermarket I saw a checkout girl hurrying an elderly man who was trying to get his money, card and receipt all squared away in his wallet. I was next in line, and I said to her, “Elderly people are often slow.” She replied, “Yeah, there’s nothing to be done about it, right?” Um, that wasn’t what I meant.

I have been in similar situations before. Sometimes the checkout person has said to me, “Sorry to keep you waiting,” as though apologizing to me for the slowness of the elderly person before me in line. I find this incredibly rude, especially if that person is still within earshot. In the Japanese language this sentence has no subject. The structure suggests that the person who kept me waiting is the cashier, but it is sometimes said with a touch of irony, so it’s pretty clear they are referring to the slow person that came before. Cash register people often rush through their transaction with the person they are actually waiting on, so they can get on to the next customer, in case he is fretting over the waste of time.

In this case I wasn’t in a hurry, there was no one behind me, and I was perfectly OK with waiting until the elderly man had finished packing up his stuff. Are we all in such a hurry now that we want to push people out of the way, people who have also waited their turn in good faith, people who might need an extra couple of seconds to prepare to move on? What was the rush, anyway? After dealing with me, she would just be staring into space waiting for the next customer. Was that a high point of her day that she wanted to get right to? Did she want to be uninterrupted to dream about her boyfriend or whatever? Are these cashiers trained this way? Don’t pay attention to the person it is your job to serve – get them out of the way so the next person, who will be treated in exactly the same way, can move forward?

I certainly don’t like to be rushed in such a situation. I waited to get to the head of the line, like everyone else. I don’t want special treatment. It will take me just as long as it takes to put away my change, tuck my store card into its accustomed slot in my wallet, fold and stow my receipt, and move on to the table to pack my items into reusable shopping bags. I’m not deliberately trying to be slow; it just that now that I am 65, it takes a couple more seconds than it did when I was 25. Don’t I rate that bit of extra time if I need it? Why can’t these people – cashiers and also the ones next in line – just take a breath and settle into a moment of waiting? I always feel hurried, especially when the next person in line is breathing down my neck, as has happened before. Social distancing? Not likely.

As I get older, I can feel myself slowing down. I’ve never been a very fast person – I eat slow, I talk slow, and increasingly, I move more slowly than before. There is nothing wrong with this. Everyone has their own rhythm. Fast is not better than slow. Let that sink in. Fast is not better than slow. I can still touch my toes, I can ride a bicycle several kilometers at a time, I can do yoga, I can dress myself and put on my pants from a standing position. But when I can no longer do these things, am I supposed to feel ashamed? We don’t know what challenges the stranger ahead of us in line may be facing. A couple of extra seconds is a gift we can give, that doesn’t cost anything and may make us feel good too.

Remember the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”? An elderly gentleman misplaced a large sum of money because he was distracted – this was one of the linchpins of the story. Perhaps the old man at the register ahead of me was doing an errand for his wife and didn’t want to make any mistakes with money. Double-checking is natural in such a situation. And being rushed is practically a guarantee of distraction, fluster and error.

Long ago, as a young wife, I was often harried by my Japanese mother-in-law with the word “tebayo”. This means “do it faster”. She scolded me once when I took a moment off to rest while preparing breakfast for a guest (not hers, but mine) who wasn’t even awake yet! I am also reminded of the word for a feast, gochiso, which literally means “honorably running around” and refers to the movements of the host in preparing and serving a feast. Anyone who has seen waitresses behind the scenes in a Japanese restaurant has seen this in action. I would describe their movements as “flurried”. This is an essential part of the guest’s enjoyment, seemingly: for them to enjoy their feast, someone else must be suffering, rushed off their feet. Huh? My mother-in-law regularly hosted feasts for relatives, as many as 20 at a time. She did a lot of running around (and so, of course, did I). It was with the greatest difficulty that she could be persuaded to sit down herself and have some food. She didn’t even set a place for herself at the table! This is how it was done in the past – women especially had to learn to “do it faster”. Now this attitude is being given new life by a culture that values youth, speed, and getting things done yesterday, above all else.

Is it possible that these old people who slink around on the sidelines have something important to contribute? I am actually quite impressed by the vibrancy of elderly people in Japan, the way they pursue hobbies and work so hard, much harder than many of their successors at the cash register and other places. They have been working hard all their lives. Is it too much to let them take their time when their bodies demand it? They shouldn’t be judged on their slowness alone. Being with an elderly person is a chance to slow down and feel the different rhythm of another person. And perhaps, get a taste of what is to come.

When I am gone, I want to be remembered, not as slow, but as wise. Wise enough to take my time, perhaps. I already enjoy my free time, taking a nap, allowing myself a few extra seconds to prepare for things. It’s not really so important that elderly people can’t do things as fast as younger people. They have their own rhythm, and they deserve that it be respected. So the next time you are tempted to think “Hurry up, you old slowpoke”, give that person the gift of a quiet moment to do what they need to do.

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I love the title! Slowing down has helped me tune into nature more deeply.


Jan 26, 2021

I talk a mile a minute but I'm a slowpoke at lots of things. I also hate it whenever cashiers say to me, "Sorry to keep you waiting" within earshot of the person they want to blame. So I usually say, "Oh it's no problem at all" or something, loudly.


Thanks, Rebecca. So nicely written, as always. I especially like the title. This is an idea that's always with me. Of course, people slow down with age, but people (as I know you know) have different speeds from the get go, do things at different paces, and not just in Japan (again, as I know you know), but everywhere, especially in "advanced" countries. One of the tricky parts about being a teacher is having a class of twenty or thirty students and knowing they all will not do their best if they are all required to maintain the same speed. You want them to learn to push themselves a bit, to develop what they are capable of, but you don't…

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