Thoughts on Time

21 08 2013

“Every morning you are handed 24 golden hours,” as the motivational quote goes. What you do with them is your choice. You can spend them constructively, at work or with family or on exercise. Or you can waste them. I can spend one on video games. I can spend one on Reddit, or, perhaps more accurately, five on Reddit at a time.

The quote has its usefulness, chiefly as a motivator to spend time wisely. But within it is a major structural flaw, evidence of a major falsehood that shapes the way we see the world and interact with it.

The flaw is that our time is our own.

What the quote gets right is that our hours are given to us; what it gets wrong is suggesting that we are given full autonomy over all 24 of them. We are given our moments one at a time, and to expect some level of control or ownership over a future moment that hasn’t been given yet – well, that might be our biggest collective absurdity.

Neil Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death about how the invention of the clock fundamentally changed our perception of the world we live in, “disassociating time from human events” and creating an independent world that supersedes and controls ours. This is no more clearly evident than when a man looks at his watch and announces “The sun will set at 7:30,” as if the celestial bodies follow the orders of the ticking authority figure wrapped around his wrist and not the other way around.

The clock broke up the entirety of time into measurable quantities – hours, minutes, seconds – and it wasn’t long until we started to feel we could rightfully own these ‘products’.

C.S. Lewis remarks on the inherent ridiculousness of this entitlement mentality in The Screwtape Letters. “The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time,” Screwtape tells his nephew, “it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels.”

The point is simple: what ownership can we assert over time when did not create it and we cannot control it? The answer is also simple: none.

Our sense of irrational ownership doesn’t end with time, of course. Screwtape himself goes on to mock the widespread human belief that we own our own bodies, but I think that is a subject for a different post – there’s not time enough to adequately address ‘time’ as it is.

Our belief that we own our time is not only irrational, it’s one of the chief sources of irritation in our daily lives. Who hasn’t at one point been annoyed at our plans for the day being overridden by an unforseen event – a friend in need, an unexpected visitor, an inescapable commitment? I see this too much in myself. If my time is not my own, why should I be so upset by being pulled away from my own plans into something different? In fact, couldn’t the moments I’m given come with an intended purpose, much like the gift of a tennis racket comes with the intention of playing tennis, or the gift of a book with the intention of reading? Maybe I’m given this particular moment of my life with the intention that I’ll use it for comforting a friend or serving someone in need. If I stubbornly try to hang on to my plan to use this coming hour for relaxation, I miss the beauty of the gift when it’s given.

Ultimately, though, we hold on to our belief in ownership of time because it supports the one great lie that we all desperately want to be true: that we are at the center of all things.

We want to believe that we are the biggest thing in the universe, that we control nature, thought and society. We desperately want to believe that we are the ultimate authority – that we define all things ourselves and that we and only we judge their validity and truth based on our own criteria. We attempt to reduce time to graven images of clock faces we put up on our walls so that we can confuse our ability change the clock face with our authority over time.

But I’ve found there’s little that makes me feel smaller as a human being than stripping away the façade of a clock face and standing next to the real thing, the issue of time, and realizing how little authority I have over it. And that’s a good thing. I believe that feeling fully the smallness of mankind is one of the most authentic entry points to one of life’s hardest truths: that there is Authority greater than us.