Out of Time


November 8, 2005
Yes! Magazine


Browse in Time

If you have lived in a Third World village, then you probably have experienced a strange — to us Americans — absence of time. There is a rhythm to daily life. People rise early to beat the sun. They prepare meals, wash clothes, visit, rest. All this proceeds at its own pace. In my wife’s village in the Philippines, I do not recall ever having seen a clock.

Nor do I recall a lack of time. To the contrary there is an abundance. The less time is measured and packaged, it seems, the more of it there is. To which a skeptic might reply, “Well of course. These people are poor. They don’t have anything else to do.” But that’s the point. They are poor in one sense and yet rich in another. That other sense happens to be the one that we Americans increasingly lack.

We are obsessed with time. We assault it, seek to tame and manage it, the way our forebears once did the frontier. We measure our progress largely by the amount of stuff we turn out per hour of work, which we call “productivity” (without regard to whether we really need the items produced). Yet striving to conquer time we end up having less of it and feeling miserable as a result.

For decades people have suffered their temporal poverty in silence, as though it’s all their own fault. But that is changing, and partly as a result the nation’s politics are changing, too. Political debate in America generally has centered on the distribution of money and material goods. Now, slowly, it is starting to be about the distribution of time. We are starting to think about temporal wealth, as well as the financial kind. Frank Luntz, the Republican message Merlin, says that time emerges as a major concern in his focus groups. Celinda Lake, a Democratic counterpart, says the same. The brushfire enthusiasm for Take Back Your Time Day suggests that they are right.

Demands for more time “off”—to attend to kids and communities, or just to rest—are going to become a staple in American politics, and this is good. It is insane to pour increasing amounts of time into the market when most of us have accumulated more things than we need already, and when so many needs in our families and communities are going unmet. But a few more holidays, and a few more days off, are not going to do the job. There are more basic questions lurking here, and a great opportunity to reach across the political-cultural divide as well.

Metronome of the marketplace

To be out of time, in the way that traditional societies are, is, in large measure, to be out of the market. It is to dwell in a world in which the market is a place one goes to, not an ambient force field that defines all of life. Clock time is the market’s metronome, the central regulatory device that entered daily life through the factory. Turning work into a commodity called “labor” created the need to measure it, just like wool and grain. And as production became more complicated, there was a need to coordinate the factors that comprised it. There had to be hours of business. Meetings had to occur.

Hence the clock. Where once the task defined time, now time defined the task. Yes, the microchip now is making the old metronome somewhat obsolete. But it is doing so not by eliminating clock time, but rather by accelerating it to warp speed. Do you really feel more rested and rich in time in an economy rushing to the pulse of the microchip? If so, you should tell the rest of us your secret. From the factory, clock time spilled out into the society at large along with the products it helped produce. The temporal organization of work became that of the home, as households had to synchronize with it. Then the market itself entered the home and planted its metronomic flag there. Television in particular partitioned the flow of life in the household into half hour segments. Inch by inch, people internalized their new master and identified with it. The body became a productive “machine.” A big-ticket “Alpha Mom,” profiled in New York magazine, said that her baby was something she and her husband “really dedicated time in our schedules for.”

She said this with pride, as though she had identified a hot strategic opportunity. The schedule rules, and kids get fitted to it. Chances are her child, like others, soon will become hyper-scheduled as well. Kids today are getting day planners at age six. Their days consist of a sequence of lessons and supervised sports, all governed by the clock. Unstructured outdoor play has dropped by 50 percent since the late 1970s. (A letter-writer to New York suggested that Alpha Mom start to set aside money for the psychiatry bills that are coming.)

Scarcity in abundance

It might seem a paradox that the desperate quest to cram more into time has caused it to diminish. But time is the awareness of space between events. More events really do mean less time. Besides, the tendency to conjure scarcity out of the abundance it helps create is a central feature of the market itself. The textbook definition of a market economy is: a system for allocating scarce resources. The corollary, usually unspoken, is that for a resource to be so allocated it must first become scarce.

There is a psychological dimension to this. A sneaker is a sneaker. Put a Nike swoosh on it, spend millions to build an aura around that swoosh, and you can sell it for a great deal of money. Branding is psychologically induced scarcity. The simple fact of immersion in a product culture causes us to feel a chronic lack. No matter how much we have already, there is always something that we don’t.

Then there’s material scarcity. In the use of natural resources such as oil, land, and air, the market tends to be an appetite without a shut-off switch. By the time the price system clicks in, the damage usually has been done. Things once abundant become scarce, with the result that people have to buy commodified substitutes. Befoul the water and then sell bottled water for drinking and pools for swimming in; that’s the basic pattern.

As with oil and water, so with time. A growing portion of this thing we call “the economy” is devoted to selling people substitutes for time, such as calming drugs, fast food, and the many “services” that have displaced the normal functions of the home. Upscale parents are contracting out the tasks of putting on birthday parties, helping kids with homework, even teaching them how to ride their bikes.

Economists call this “growth.” For the rest of us it sounds more like pathology. But our strange notions regarding time help to obscure this simple fact.

A sanctity has grown up around the assault on time. It is as though temporal exhaustion, and the self-exhaustion it involves, is a devotional act, almost a form of communion. The kind of pride a medieval monk might have felt, or been tempted to feel, at his endurance in prayer, people today feel at their capacity to multi-task, to cram more in. Few traits so signify competence; the media reported breathlessly on President Kennedy’s speed-reading and on Bill Clinton’s lack of need for sleep.

The parallel to the monastery is not accidental. Clock time took root in the Benedictine monasteries before the factory owners got hold of it. St. Benedict had declared war on idleness. “Toward this end,” Jeremy Rifkin observed in his book Time Wars, “the Benedictines organized every moment of the day into formal activity.” They revived the Roman concept of the hour, and arranged their day around it. Eating, prayer, even the call of nature, had an appointed time. Devotion was seen in regularity in every sense of the word.

When this form of temporal management came over the wall, it kept a certain pietistic quality. The monk prayed at an appointed time; the man of business arrived at work. The center of gravity shifted from the church to the counting house, and the pursuit of the absolute became the service of Mammon. But punctuality was now the issue, not the cause it served.

Eventually this all became part of the strange amalgam we now call the “Protestant Ethic,” in which fitness for the Kingdom was seen in the ability to acquire this world’s goods. The destruction of time became a secular version of the destruction of sin and the supposed virtue of the destroyer became a veil for the destruction itself. Thus the Republican Party today, with its awkward alliance between the moneychangers of Wall Street and the purported followers of the exemplar who whipped them out of the temple two millennia ago.

In some segments of the Left there has been revulsion, not just for the alliance but also for the churches that comprise it, and often for the whole Judeo-Christian tradition as well. There has been a resort to teachings that seem as far away as possible, from Native American spirituality to Zen. This is understandable but also tragic, because it has separated activists from the roots of their own culture and from the inner reference points they need to reach. Instead of refuting the ideologues from the standpoint of scriptural teaching they attack “religion in politics” and thus tighten the bonds between the preachers and their flocks.

The best of the Good Book

The truth is, it would be hard to find a text more subversive of linear and clock time, and the ideologies built upon it, than the Bible. This is not just a matter of Jesus’ denunciations of empire and greed, his demand that we “take no thought” for our lives, and the like. It goes deeper, to insights about the ultimate nature and reality of things, including human consciousness itself. If reclaimed from the preachers, these insights could help break the spell of both the market and its metronome.

The Judeo-Christian scripture was written at many levels. At first it seems an historical narrative, and not always an appealing one. But these people understood something about pedagogical indirection, and latent in the history is a dimension that is out of time. It comes through in passages that can seem a little off-the-wall, but that in fact go to the core.

There is, for example, this passage in Ecclesiastes: “That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been.” And this one from Isaiah, in which the prophet portrays the Absolute as “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times the things that are not yet done.” This thread continues through the works of Jesus up to Revelations, where the ultimate reality—that is, “God”—is described as “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending … which is, and which was, and which is to come.”

This is not linear or clock time—and there are many passages in this vein. As Maurice Nicoll, the late Jungian psychiatrist, pointed out in his book Living Time, the words translated as “eternal” in both the Old and New Testaments do not mean what the English suggests: extending forever into linear time. They do not mean the kind of eternity that biochemistry can give us.

Rather they suggest a past and future that exist all-at-once as an “overshadowing Totality.” Nicoll quotes Tayler Lewis, a 19th century American scholar, on the point. In the Hebrew concept, “the future world does not come to us and acquire reality by being present but we are going into it,” Lewis wrote. “The future has as real an existence as that through which we have passed.”

This is a large subject, but the point here is this: The West’s own traditional teachings regard clock time—and therefore market time—as a kind of sleep from which we have to wake. It is sin in the original sense of that word—that is, to “miss the mark” or misapprehend the point of one’s existence. When one sets to work to grasp this larger concept of time, the way the prophets did, internal changes start, including change in the way we relate to money, stuff, and this world’s goals.

Could there be a better starting point for raising questions about temporal poverty and its sources in America today?

I am not suggesting a frontal assault based on scriptural metaphysics. Big ideas such as this have to be broached in small steps. But there’s a bridge here, a way to speak from inside a tradition and teaching that many Americans identify with. The basic question in politics is: “Does this candidate (or cause) think pretty much the way I do? Can I hear something of myself in him or her?” Here’s a way to get closer to “yes.” We are not going to return to the temporal abundance of Third World villages, and most of us would not want to. But we can learn something from it and look for ways to recreate it in our own society. It certainly would help to carve out more temporal enclaves within the market—more vacations, more days off for purposes of children and family, and the like. But if we just use that time for shopping, then the market still has us.

To get the market out of our lives we first have to get it out of ourselves. We need to make this shedding an object of desire. To start with something people desire already is a big help.

Jonathan Rowe is a YES! contributing editor.