I’ve been thinking about the idea of slack lately. It’s a seasonal preoccupation, prone to beset me in Québec’s dark winter months. What if, I wonder, we just decided to do less during these months, or at least dramatically reduce the expectations for ourselves and others? “Do less” is not exactly what I mean, though. I don’t want to watch more TV or swipe through more content in wintertime — I want to be doing winter things, winter work. I want to live off what’s been put away. I want to slowly reel in the slack that’s accumulated through the warm months of toil and abundance.
But there’s no slack. Everything–everyone–is pulled taut.
So it was that I stumbled on this beautiful little piece my Leah Libresco Sargeant at Breaking Ground. In Snow Days and Slack, Libesco Sargeant shares an elegy for snow days as we once knew them: contingencies, received either as mercy or disaster.
A snow day is an interruption of our plans. It forces us to hold our own expectations and designs loosely. Snow days are an invitation to “reckon with the infallible judgment of reality,” as Matthew Crawford puts it in Shop Class as Soulcraft. The intrusions of the physical world have an urgency and an undeniability our increasingly digital lives lack.
What is a snow day to children learning remotely, or their teachers? Quoting NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio, Libresco Sargeant recognizes that our pivot into digital spaces “ends the snow day as we know it.” The reason snow days often appear as mercies speaks to our lack of slack (or margin, buffer, whatever you want to call it). “Unlike a weekend, a snow day arrives as an unexpected windfall—a blank day in the calendar that we haven’t had time to fill up with appointments.” The windfall-like experience of finding some slack where once life was coiled tight is what prompts Libresco Sargeant to liken her childhood snow days to fairy gold, “only able to be spent before sunset before it melted away into mush,” before the slack was again pulled in.
Slack is, of course, inefficient. We want our enterprises lean, especially if it’ll increase profits. But I wonder what we lose when we live life planned and filled to its utter limits. Maybe I’m lazy, yet I can’t help but feel I often lack ”the minimum of freedom on which a minimum life of prayer depends,” as Libresco Sargeant quotes from Fr. Jean Daniélou.
More and more of our lives are structured to crowd out silence. As we learn to live with the promise and peril of remote work, and become increasingly subject to technologies of control and management for others’ benefit, we ought to give thought to slack.
Whether for the work of prayer or the good of our communities, we may need to start pulling on the ropes around our necks. One way or another, the world and its powers will have to “reckon with the infallible judgment of reality.” Few will tolerate the elimination of slack in the rope tied around their neck for very long.
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Cover Photo: Old Book Illustrations