Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Of Time and Obligations

We read an interesting short story the other day by JG Ballard titled "Chronopolis," in which society has reacted to the increased over-scheduling of life by banning clocks. The result is a culture in which no one is really sure what is supposed to happening when, and in which things (seemingly inevitably) go on either for too long or not long enough.

While we are not sure what message Ballard intended to send, we found the concept of a timeless society quite interesting. On reflection, it occurred to us that clocks are a very recent invention, and that humans lived (and thrived) for some time without them. (As, we might add, did the dinosaurs, who as George Will recently pointed out, "lived a thousand times longer than humans have yet lived.") Indeed, it seems almost passe to point out that we are the only known species to have created time-measuring devices of any sort.

The more we considered it, the more we realized that our obsession with time (for that is what it is) exerts a silent but powerful tyranny over our lives. Not only is virtually everything we do tied to time, but we have convinced ourselves that time is a benevolent master. Thus such comments as "I have to be there at 2:00" stir not resentment (Why? Why must I be there?) but rather pride (My importance is validated by this commitment).

This, of course, ties into the theme of busyness we have discussed in the past--namely, that people today have far more leisure time at their disposal than at any other time in human history (we are speaking mainly of people in the industrialized nations, for whom the problems of day-to-day survival are de minimus), and yet seem compelled to fill their days with "obligations."

Indeed, as we were thinking this issue through we came across a story in the Washington Post magazine that dealt with this very topic. The story discussed the author's life as a harried working mother; more specifically, it detailed the author's annoyance at a researcher who told her she had roughly 30 hours a week of "leisure time," and asked her to keep a diary of a typical week to prove it.

"As I kept my time diary, I realized that I kept putting leisure off, as if I were waiting to reach some mystical tipping point: If I could just finish cleaning out the crayons and shark teeth and math papers and toys and rocks (yes, rocks) from the kids' closets, fix the coffeepot, pay the bills, send that wedding present five months late -- then I could sit down and read a book and not feel guilty. As if leisure were something I needed to earn.

I just felt so busy. That sense of being overwhelmed, explained cultural sociologist Edson Rodriguez, 27, who teaches at the University of Southern California, is a status symbol these days. Everybody who aspires to be anybody is busy. Gone are the days when the goal of the wealthy and elite was to laze around doing nothing. These days, even billionaires are on tight schedules. 'We derive status from feeling overwhelmed,' Rodriguez says. 'So if I don't feel busy today, there's something wrong.'" (Emphasis added.)

There you have it. "We derive status from feeling overwhelmed." Why? Well, if we have all these things to do it must be due to our incredible importance. And not just to those waiting for us, but to humanity at large. After all, such an important individual, with so many critical things to do, could never...you know...die.

Human beings are an historical anomaly. We can foresee and comprehend our own death, yet can do nothing to stop it. While such concerns were of little import when our hours were filled with mere survival, they have become more pressing--and our need to somehow escape from them more urgent--in recent millennia. Thus the advent of religion, which essentially absolved people of the need to figure anything out--"God's will" being the ultimate "Get out of jail free" card.

However, as we have acquired knowledge about the physical world--the bulk of which conflicts directly with religious dogma--religion has become a less-reliable crutch for those hoping to escape the inevitability of their own demise. This has been compounded by the astounding strides made in technology and medicine over the past century, during which the average global lifespan increased from 30 to 65 (for Americans, lifespans grew from less than 50 to nearly 80).

In short, people are living far longer, more comfortable lives than ever before, but are still very much mortal. (Further, the knowledge that has led to such gains has been paralleled by increased knowledge about the workings of life, all of which points not to humans occupying some exalted niche, but rather to our being, to put it bluntly, a more complex form of larvae.) This paradox--our ability to make life longer and more enjoyable, but inability to actually cheat death--is at the root of today's crazed focus on busyness.

The thought of actually sitting quietly by oneself is so terrifying to most people (though by no means all) that they avoid it at all costs, convincing themselves that achievement is a formula for ultimate happiness (not today, but someday...), even as they are presented with evidence on a seemingly daily basis that those who have achieved the most...are still (as a general rule) profoundly unhappy.

Vive hodie!


  1. Nice post . . .

    I encourage everyone to also check out diGrazia's "Of Time, Work, and Leisure" for a terrific, extended overview of time, free time, and leisure, and cultural responses to these constructs.


  2. thanks so much for this post! a nice reminder to make me rethink, reorient a bit...

  3. Rick Rick Rick. Brilliant man. You are very up and down, and this one is way up. Hard to believe it was written by the same person who wrote "in praise of consistency", who in turn cannot possibly be the absolute genius who wrote "Regret in a world that has no meaning is a wasteful emotion, in fact it is practically a contradiction." Jeez, this is so good.

  4. My father used to say, "Everyone knows they're gonna die, but no one believes it." Dont know if he originated that?

  5. This post really reminds me, when I'm having a bad day, what a tiny-tiny fraction of my entire life one day is. And what a tiny-tiny-tiny fraction of all humanity my entire life is. And what a tiny-tiny-tiny-tiny fraction of the universe all humanity is.

  6. We have to be careful about distinguishing achievement (i.e the rat race sense) from the 'busy' work that people perform in dedication to a cause/mission/group. In the latter, work is done for the collective body (voluntarily). Your rant is basically relevant to people who can only think of themselves (self-absorbed, selfish, & usually slaves to corporations).

  7. Not quite, Gavin. The people performing in dedication to a cause/mission/group have also essentially assigned "meaning" to their efforts--simply directed in a different, (purportedly) unselfish way from the rat racers--and, in this assignment of meaning, miss the absurdist stance.

  8. Its funny when we absurdists turn from pointing out the absurd nature of ALL life and struggle, and then we instead claim that those who pretend there is meaning are missing something meaningful that only we see! If they have more fun pretending there is meaning, who am I to judge? I think deep down most people know what life really is. If we absurdists like to face it consciously and explicitly, we do. But we cannot take the step to say it is "Better", because there is no better. We can point out that for us it is more freeing and fun, but even that, in the end, doesn't matter.