Time poverty

Time wears down mountains, causes continents to drift apart, and galaxies to live and die. Living beings don’t exist forever. Because this is an unsettling thought, it’s easier to keep busy. But that makes us time poor.

Most of us hate waiting. We wait for trains, in doctors’ offices, at airports. We flee from unstructured time. We try to fill every fatiguing moment with a host of distractions.

We hurtle though life in a state of time poverty, concerning ourselves with the future, or imagining the past. We obsess about being productive and efficient. Modern life fosters speed, so slowing down is uncharted territory.

Yet events can shake us awake. Contact and connection are vital to living humans. It’s often after a loss that we get a sense of how life is precious. No one on her death bed wished she’d spent more time at the office. Time is a non-renewable resource.

We behave as if we are identical to others. Clumping in groups of like-minded people reinforces the illusion of sameness. Social conditioning promotes an idea of an undifferentiated self: a human unit. Yet each of us is unique. We inhabit a personal world. Our experience is ours alone.

Josef Pieper, a twentieth century philosopher, wrote Leisure: The Basis of Culture more than sixty years ago. Pieper warned against the ‘Total World of Work,’ and that if we continue to ignore the need for leisure we will destroy our culture and be less human. But creating unstructured time is counter-intuitive.

We fear what will happen with no goal, and no agenda. Will we become bored? And what if we do? Boredom, like failure, is a necessary personal developmental state.

Leisure, as Pieper writes,  allows time for contemplation and creation beyond what is necessary for mere survival.

All living creatures project themselves into the future. The fox, hunting the rabbit, has a sense of a future meal. The point here is moderation and balance. A garage full of junk leaves no room for the car, in the same way obsession with the past and future leaves no time for the present.

Genuinely new situations are by definition unfamiliar. Sometimes we are quick to judge these unfamiliar states-of-being as confusion, simply because they are new.

Self-discovery is a time-intensive project.Understanding our personal boundaries doesn’t mean limiting ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that we need to transgress our boundaries in order to know what they are.

If we don’t understand ourselves we copy other people, then our desires are not our desires, but those we think we should have. Only by understanding our boundaries can we make informed decisions what is right for us as individuals.

Events call for different responses. But effective responsiveness requires self-knowledge. And without that, it’s almost impossible to recognize the uniqueness of another human being.

William James said something to the effect that risking ourselves from moment to moment is our state of aliveness. If we only pay attention to what we know—what we can make sense of—we will never embark on a journey into the unknown.

Time is the enemy. Time is money. Fast has become the default speed. It is necessary at times. But faster isn’t always better. Not all situations call for efficiency. Shakespeare said, “marry in haste, repent at leisure.” Serious decision-making in complex situations is not for the time poor.

Yet we can cultivate waiting, noticing, and being present: a time to get to know ourselves. And for that we’ll need to pick some time-consuming activity and give it up.

[Related article: Four stages of just about anything.]