What are the two things we complain about most? Lack of money and lack of time. But when you get right down to it, we aren’t even complaining about lack of time anymore. We just believe that we have no time and live accordingly.
Money is where we focus our attention, for good reasons (often). There is a threshold of “enough” money below which we experience real suffering: not enough food, not enough medicine, no winter boots, a car that can’t get us to work reliably. The problem is that “enough” is a very thin line and a hard one to recognize, because a) we have no cultural standard for it (indeed, we have lots of cultural standards that say it doesn’t exist), and b) we ourselves perceive it as always receding, like the horizon.
As soon as we have enough to eat and enough to keep warm and healthy, we want a nicer car. Then a bigger kitchen. Then private school for the kids. Then a little cabin somewhere on a lake, because hey, our friends have one. Some days it’s hard to remember how fortunate we are because our cultural methodology for happiness involves training our eyes on the next thing we don’t have. Happiness isn’t something we HAVE, it’s something we pursue. Like hounds, panting, barking, giving chase.
You could argue the same basic truths apply to the problem of time. We have no time because we’re rushing to get everything done: meet a deadline, make the meeting, get the kids to school, run the errands. And when we DO have time, we don’t know how to deal with the time itself OR with the fact of having it. We figure having time means we should be doing something (and Facebook and Pinterest feel like we’re doing something, right?), and/or the fact that we actually have time means there’s something we aren’t doing, something we should have done. And this isn’t even counting the many professional cultures where you would never dare admit that you weren’t incredibly busy, where busy is the measure of your worth. Sigh. It’s quite a burden we choose to haul.
But it’s also clear that many of the solutions to our many problems involve, at bottom, more time. Organizational culture is about time together; community is about time together; all forms of education are about time together and alone; overcoming fear takes time; developing creative solutions takes time; doing all the work that needs to be done to keep our systems running takes time. Answers to poverty are in many ways rooted in time: to grow things together, to care for one another’s needs, to build relationships that help us teach and learn and share. The impetus behind the industrial revolution was about time, a fact we conveniently forget: the goal was not to “save” time by replacing people with machines so that more of us could live in poverty and/or do more menial work for less money; the goal was to save time so that we could spend it with our families, our communities, our churches. Imagine that instead of a small group of overworked wealthy people and masses of unemployed, we had most folks working three days a week, or every morning, or whatever the arrangement. With the necessarily reconfigured salaries, we could actually have our cake and eat it too: rewarding careers AND a life, albeit a less monetarily-driven one. We could play in a band. Go to soccer practice, or watch your kid’s games. Volunteer. Build things.
Right now, most of us either don’t have time or we’re ashamed of having it. That’s no way to live.
I’ve struggled for a long time to come to terms with my own life choices — leaving a hectic and important full-time career for mostly mommying with part-time consulting and teaching. I made my choices because everything else felt wrong, but that’s not to say that this felt right. It’s taken me a long time to see that it doesn’t “feel right” for two reasons: 1. Because it IS right, for me, and I find it very hard to accept and choose to live in that kind of basic happiness; and 2. because it affords me so much time. I have 2.5 days a week with both my sweet boys and 2.5 days a week for my writing, board work, consulting, teaching, creative endeavors, and household management. It’s a thing of beauty, and four years in, I’m just starting to be able to describe it to others with joy and pride instead of bashfulness and self-justification. The money part is hard, I grant (almost as hard as the gendered nature of relying on my husband’s income and insurance) but I have faith I’ll be able to bring in more when more is necessary, and meanwhile the tightness encourages lifestyles I love (mostly): thrifting, cooking, growing, eating largely vegetarian, and DIY for whatever we can. (Talk to me in another six months when my fifteen-year-old station wagon dies, and you’ll hear another story…)
This newfound appreciation of the life I’ve chosen has led to some other useful realizations: time is precious and it is mercurial. We imagine we can chop it up into segments (this bit for exercise, that bit for meetings), but it messes with us. The twenty minutes on the treadmill take FOREVER (unless you have a good book and then it’s not long enough); the meeting can spend an hour in a bad twelve minutes and then fly through the next forty-eight. The gift, I find, is that time stretches when we let it, and then all kinds of life can step in and pull up a seat.
At a recent board meeting, some of us were five or ten minutes early; most folks were on time; one key leader was fifteen minutes late. For two folks carrying great tension, the wait was visibly painful. For those of us who always regret not having time to catch up with others, it was (I hesitate to say it) something of a gift. We CHATTED. About jewelry, and clothing swaps, and how we love it when an object we’ve cared for but no longer need finds a new home. About grandchildren and winter and the sudden discovery of a loved-one’s need for heart surgery. Suddenly we were whole people around the table, bringing all our gifts and selfness, all because we had a stray fifteen minutes put to good use.
I’m rereading Wendell Berry’s beautiful novel Jayber Crow (if you haven’t read it, do), which is all about time. I mean, it’s ostensibly about a young man’s journey to find home and build community, but that of course means it’s about time. He’s a reader and a wanderer and a listener. His sense of the world comes from being out in it, without rush or agenda, with instead a deep curiosity and an openness to what is. Never mind that the voice of the novel feels as if you’re sitting at your beloved grandfather’s feet near the fireplace on a cold evening; everything about it evokes a time when we had time. Men sit in the old closed-up town store playing an endless game of gin runny to while away the winter hours during the war. Jayber himself, the town barber, recognizes that his shop is as much for loafing and talking as it is for the commerce of haircuts and shaves. The land itself, through flood and storm and gentle new growth, has needs that the good farmers seek to hear and to meet, not only through work but through slow walks around their properties and long conversations with neighbors.
The writers I love, the PEOPLE I love, are those who honor time. They stretch it out like taffy with stories and music, meditation, board games, nature walks, floating in lakes, observing birds in flight and at rest. They unfold it like a warm blanket over anyone in their presence, with careful questions and unhurried listening. They understand how much they don’t understand, and they are willing to listen, to learn, or simply to be present. These are my chosen ways, now that I can see they are choices. They fill me with hope.