Don’t waste your time!

I was brought up with the mantra don’t waste your time. My parents were quite insistent that their children make the most of their time (and definitely not waste theirs). Only now do I realize that this attitude was not something purely utilitarian – a way to make it out of misery and to the top. It actually has biblical roots:

Make best use of the time, because the days are evil. Eph 5:16 (ESV)

for a German version of this article: Verschwende deine Zeit nicht!

For my parents’ and grandparents’ generation making most of their time seemed to have worked. They all have roots in an agrarian lifestyle – something that for the most part excluded options in life, and was equally associated with a good measure of back-breaking labour, servitude, misery and poverty. But they overcame the burden thereof and created for themselves a much more comfortable worldly existence.

My paternal grandmother left the noble estate in Saxony she grew up on at age 18. Her family “belonged” there for generations and did farm work for the family Von Schönberg that held the estate since the 13th century. The owners lived in the castlewhile my grandmother’s family and all the other farm workers made their homes in and above the barns and stables, intimately sharing space and status with the draft horses, cattle, and other livestock. And despite the fact that they provided the manual labour for a major food producer in the region, they knew hunger all too well. The livestock and crops they raised were not to feed the workers, but to be sold in profitable markets for a good price. The workers and their families were allowed to pick the fields for their own use after the crops were harvested. The only source of animal protein were the fish heads they were able to get from the fishmonger because he had no other use for them. Even decades later, grandma was able to prepare an awesome fish head stew – but she often did not share it with her family. She was ashamed because of stigma: People who eat fish heads are poor  and possibly lazy. If only they had made better use of their time…

Sculpins caught in the cold waters near Ikaluktutiak/Cambridge Bay, Nunavut

My maternal grandfather had his own story of marginalization. He grew up in a family of itinerant farm workers in the Napf region of Switzerland. The haylofts of relatively affluent farmers were often their homes. At a young age, his time and manual skills were required by the family for plain survival. He was very proficient and knowledgeable in many farm chores. He was able to attend school part-time for seven winters, depending on the workload and the weather conditions between the remote farmsteads and the little one-room school. He eventually ‘graduated’ with a grade four education.

But all of my grandparents were able to pull themselves out of abject poverty and step up from the preindustrial life on the farms into an industrial one. Both grandfathers became truck drivers with the first generation of motorized vehicles. Both grandmothers worked in the gastronomy sector until they married and became stay-at-home mothers. They used their time wisely, became literate and worked hard, and thus secured stable employment, income, and pensions. They moved to the city and were able to afford decent and humane rental housing in a working-class housing co-op.

They exemplified and passed on the belief that one can make it and become upwardly mobile by not wasting time and effort. My parents were given the opportunity to finish high school and learn a trade through financial sacrifice and hard work by their families. My dad had to continue his education through college taking evening classes while he was working full-time. He eventually became an engineer, and the first person in the family with a post-secondary credential. That enabled my parents to move up to middle class standing in society. It also made them believe that there will be no obstacle for their children to make it all the  way to the top: Wealth, reputation, and possibly fame were on the horizon.

What my parents did not realize was that the next step of upwards mobility in a globalizing society became way more complex than just making the best use of time and effort. Time started to become a commodity and only those who could buy their time had real chances: It was no longer sufficient to work hard – now it was required to network and multitask, to be involved in many activities and causes to move forward (or up). A single income was no longer enough to provide for a family and to become affluent, accumulate property, and provide security for the future.

At that point, I started to rebel and seriously question the underlying assumptions of the use of time in my life. Why was it imperative to split one’s time into work time (increasing), family time (decreasing), recreation and fun time (when possible). Why wasn’t it possible to learn and work at the same time and place where I live and share life, and where I am able to enjoy myself and stay healthy?

All is One – I am still seeing life as a unity of loving, working, and reflecting.

But contemporary life has become increasingly compartmentalized, which is only feasible when we have and can afford the means to quickly and efficiently move from one compartment to the next – either by rushing and driving from one thing to the next, or nowadays by multitasking with a whole array of gadgets: It is possible to check e-mails and simultaneously make phone calls while driving to the next required appearance. And we are arriving at the point where it becomes acceptable to leave things incomplete or unpolished because we all recognize that there will not be sufficient time to do everything.

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over? (John Wooden

I can feel the exhaustion simply by writing this out. Making the most of time has reached a meaning and intensity that was unimaginable for our parents’ generation. Are we still talking about the same time concept as the one I referred to earlier with a biblical example?

Interestingly, in Greek there are two distinct terms that are routinely translated into time, namely Χρόνος (chronos) and καιρός (kairos). I got reminded of that distinction by reading an article on  An asceticism of time by James D. Whitehead (Review for Religious, 39(1980), pp. 3-17).

Chronos marks duration, the passage of time, chronological progression, and continuity from past to present and into the future. This is the time we know well, the time that becomes scarce, that runs out, and that can be wasted or used wisely and efficiently. On the other hand, there is kairos, the time of opportunity and occasion – something that we would describe as the right time in common language. The right time is not measurable or determinable by the clock. It rests grounded and measured in meaning that sits deep in personal or collective experience and spirituality.

Dream collage card by Karen Melady (photo credit Karen Melady)

Whitehead distinguishes a triad of modes of living and experiencing time: He postulates a continuum from dissipation to concentration to compulsion. Dissipation is the mode that we experience as boredom, as drudgery of time. It characterizes pointlessness and directionless. “Life goes on, or slips away, or turns out, but enjoys no special energy or focus” (p.8). The no-future-movement and generation embodies that mode of time in a dramatic way: People don’t know what to do with their time and sometimes find an outlet for their energy in violent behaviours.

The other extreme is compulsion, the mode that is obsessively focussed; things have to get done, people feel driven, and certain undertakings absorb all our attention to the neglect of other aspects of our lives. This is the vision my parents had for their children: getting to the top and proving to other that I can get things done. It is embedded in the postmodern glorification of (eternal) youth and the fear of aging and dying. It is also embedded in the economic theory of continual growth. People get drawn into a rat race until they collapse.

In between the two extremes is the mode of concentration as a third kind of time and life experience. These are the moments or periods in life where we feel present and are focused in harmonious relationships, find meaning in our existence and our daily activities beyond comparison, competition, and gain, and have time to reflect on and to cherish ‘being here’.

Whitehead sees chronos at work in either extreme on the spectrum, but qualifies the concentrated mode of living as kairotic – as holy time. Whenever we experience a moment in kairos, we experience it as a gift. Unfortunately, our society and economy have also sprouted an entire industry that exploits this human longing for experiencing kairos by selling an endless array of substitutes that can fill our bookshelves or agendas even further. This perversion of time and its experience as a human being seems to be reflected in the William Penn quote

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst (Preface to Some Fruits of Solitude In Reflections And Maxims, 1693)

indicating the continuous longing for holy time while operating in real-time, whether by wasting time or by responding to the incessant pressures and expectations imposed on life by society, economy, and polity.

Kairos is the expression of time when we as human beings are connected to a Higher Power, to God. As I wrote in a previous post, I need and want to learn the ability to stop and listen. This ability is what Whitehead describes as an asceticism of time. It begins with taking time to reflect on how we structure our daily lives, how we set our goals and aspirations in life. We need to recognize that empty spaces are not a waste of time but an opportunity for prayer and reflection. But an asceticism of time is much more than good time management, because that deals with the measurable qualities of chronos. It is about an acknowledgement that we are dependent on guidance, that we are insignificant but essential particles in a universe. It is about the recognition that if we take time to stop and listen, that we get to know about the right time, an occasion that some describe as being the will of God. Instead of doing things fast, we can now learn to do things right!

That way, we make best use of our time, and the days are no longer evil.

I am still thinking about my parents’ and grandparents’ experience of life. How much did they know about distinguishing chronos and kairos, about living less in the extremes on the continuum between dissipation and compulsion? Whether they were aware of any of this theoretical stuff or not, they instilled in me a sense for doing things right that I wish to share with people around me and to pass on to the next generation.

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