In his classic existentialist novel, The Stranger, Camus wrote, “I’d read, of course, that in jail one ends up losing track of time.” He then has his protagonist reflect upon how worrying about time had governed his life before he had become incarcerated.
This is interesting — and relatively recent as the whole concept of linear time is a construct of modernity.
Before the 1870’s the colloquial phrase “on time” was non-existent. The industrial revolution, which brought the railroad out West, also brought us to the point of declaring a worker or a train to be “on time.” Earlier, folks simply “passed time” in their various vocations. Then along came the modern dictum that we save, spend, and keep track of time.
How often have we heard that time is money?
For most people, the clock can be a good servant, but a pretty poor master. Striving to work efficiently is a good thing in any endeavor, but approaching a task with the pressure of having to “get ‘er done” in a short amount of time….well, good luck with that! I can remember my grandmother saying that “the ‘hurrieder” I go, the ‘behinder’ I get.”
When a job requires creativity and problem solving, worries about how much sand is left in the hourglass can be stifling and paralyzing.
Another pitfall of hurrying things along is the tendency to think about what we need to do next or, worse yet, what we should be doing instead. When this happens, we are not present in the moment. All of the pleasures of fulfillment and enjoyment slip from our grasp when we are thinking about obligations other than the matter at hand.
A heart attack
The Chinese pictograph for “busy” is composed of two characters: heart and killing.
When I first learned this, I thought about all of the people who are “too busy” to return a phone call; the many children who get money instead of their parents’ time; and the many times that any of us has an opportunity to touch someone’s life with kindness but we are supposedly too busy. Life is moving way too fast: more and more people are becoming stuck in the stress of excess, which begins with possession overload and ends in time famine. It starts with choosing stuff over time.
Glossy, multi-colored advertisements for pills, potions and other products to help you fall asleep are regularly found in most major magazines. People just aren’t sleeping like their grandparents did. Some even claim that they don’t have time to sleep — that they are too busy. The sale of pre-packaged and take-out foods has increased as people also claim to be too busy to prepare food at home. In 1900, the typical American household spent six hours a day in food prep and cleanup. Last year, Americans averaged 31 minutes a day. We think this time-savings makes us somehow richer because we have been conditioned to believe that time is money.
Martin Heidegger explored the meaning of being as defined by time. He thought that an analysis of time gave us insight into our nature, our being. Can something as important as our nature, our very being, be defined by money? Is our life measurable in dollars and cents?
One answer to these questions is offered by voluntary simplicity. “Voluntary simplicity” describes a process whereby people opt out of the harried life of modern day living, and choose to live a more frugal, simple life. Frugality in this sense doesn’t mean poverty. Rather, it means getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of. And, living simply frees up time!
Frugal is characterized by, or reflective of, economy in the expenditure of resources. Simplicity means making time for yourself in a hectic world. You clear out what is superfluous and make room for that which is meaningful. As the pace of modern life has taken its toll on people and we have all become increasingly concerned about over-consumption of earth resources, the movement toward voluntary simplicity has grown.
Unlike poverty, voluntary simplicity comes from within. It is a social movement that invites a more sustainable and spiritually connected existence. Voluntary simplicity is a matter of personal responsibility and conscious awareness of how we live on the planet. It means identifying the difference between our needs and our wants. Needs are those things that are necessary for our survival and actualization. Wants are all the other things we desire and to a large extent are driven by media advertising. Simplicity is the identifiable difference between needs and wants.
As we invite meaning into our lives, we start to become aware of the shallowness of a life based on materialism and consumerism. We become conscious of how much energy it takes just to keep up with the daily rat race. We discover that getting a good job, getting married, having children, and securing a mortgage with a two-car garage still leaves us feeling incomplete. Without a sense of a deeper, spiritual meaning, we have a hole in our soul. Some try to fill the hole with more stuff — consuming more and more and feeling less and less satisfied. Of course, by definition, “to consume” means to do away with completely; to destroy; to spend wastefully and squander – to use up.
Path to nonviolence
Simplicity is a counter-direction: a more viable correction. In choosing simplicity, we can remember that we are spiritual beings, in a physical body, having a human experience. The journey toward a more simple and sustainable lifestyle begins by examining our expectations and assumptions, including the belief systems that drive us to live our lives in fast-forward, with the pedal to the metal.
Down-shifting — being content with less stuff and slowing down — helps us take back our time. Moving out of the mindset of a consumer and into that of a citizen builds strong community ties. So, the next time that we see one another, let’s not rush past each other on the street like Mad Hatters, trying to “beat time.”
Perhaps the words of Thomas Merton best sum it up: “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.”
– Sherry Ackerman, Transition Voice