One could say that time is our Achilles’ heel; no matter how hard we try, we can never beat the clock. We bemoan the fact that there is never enough time to accomplish what is important to us. If we wish to get something done, we must “make time” for it. We are forever running out of time. The test proctor or the sports timekeeper yells “Time!” Our days on earth are numbered; ultimately, we have only so many years, months and hours before the good Lord yells “Time’s up!”
We mark the passage of time with calendars, clocks, watches, the big display on the front screen of iPhones and the small one tucked into the corners of our PCs and laptops. Our electronic devices all tell us when time’s up, from the alarm that wakes us in the morning to the beeping of the microwave and the buzzing notifying us that the laundry is dry. Official documents list the exact time of our birth and of our death.
We wish that we could go back in time, that we could turn back the clock to recapture the halcyon days of our youths or to relive the good times of our lives or to undo mistakes that, in the wisdom that comes with age and experience, we now recognize. Such fanciful ideas were restricted to the imaginative writings of science fiction authors until Einstein and other physicists came along to tell us that, at least theoretically, it is within the realm of the possible.
There is no shortage of aphorisms and bromides regarding time and the importance of using it wisely. Time waits for no man. There’s no time like the present. Time is money. Time is of the essence. Time’s a-wastin’.
Some say that we should recognize time as a gift to us and that we should pay it forward by re-gifting some of our time to others. Others say that there is too much pressure to devote our time to others and that we never have enough time for ourselves.
I thought about this the other day when my wife and I were sitting in Denny’s, waiting for our meals to arrive. A young girl, about 12 or 13 years old, was sitting across from her father at the next table. The girl was happily chattering away to her dad about the events of her day. The father, meanwhile, made not the slightest motion to acknowledge his daughter’s remarks or even to look at her; he was engrossed in his cell phone. When the girl finally realized that her efforts to communicate with Dad were futile, she stopped speaking in mid-sentence. She knew she was wasting her time, so she simply gave up.
We were saddened at this scene, and I regret to say that it brought back memories of my own childhood. Incensed, my wife said that she wanted to grab the man by the collar and give him a good shake. She wanted to tell the man that if he continues to withhold his attention from his daughter, he would have no one to blame but himself when, in just a few short years, she ends up pregnant, addicted to drugs and in trouble with the law.
I had to tell my wife a story about a special type of sign language that my sisters and I had when we were growing up. I had totally forgotten about this, but the drama playing out at the next table at Denny’s brought it all back to me as if it were yesterday. My parents were both professionals; when they were home, they seemed to have no desire to do anything but talk shop with each other. When one of my sisters or myself tried to speak to them about the events of the day, ask questions, tell them what we thought was important in our lives, we were rarely able to attract their attention. They’d either continue with their own conversation or tell us to quit annoying them. “Did you hear a word I said?” often came out of our mouths when we received no response. My sisters and I would look at each other and make the hand motions of a wall going up between us and them.
This reminded me that “spending time” with someone has to mean more than physical proximity. In the seventies, the term “quality time” came into vogue. Simply being in the same room with someone is not enough to forge a viable relationship. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Are you merely physically present, or are you “fully present?” Are you paying attention, being fully engaged in the moment, showing you care? If you are going to sit here and allow me to talk to a wall, please don’t insult me by bothering.
The gift of time. We ration it, parceling it out in tiny doses. “There are only 24 hours in a day,” we tell ourselves. We have to work eight hours and sleep eight hours, which leaves us with only eight hours to get everything done, including spending some of that time on ourselves and on those who are important to us.
The first reliable clocks began to be installed in churches in England in the fourteenth century. Before that, time was a much less exact science. We marked time by the movements of the sun. The economy of the civilized world was primarily agricultural, and the farmer worked from sunup to sundown. We noted the phases of the moon and the changing of the seasons.
It has been argued that, more than anything else, the clock was the single invention that made the Industrial Revolution possible. Factory work became possible because employers could set the start and stop times of their employees, and enforce them by summarily firing those who would not or could not fit squarely into the mold. One could not leave the loom, the lathe or the mine until the foreman blew the whistle. Indeed, one could say that the clock turned us all into wage slaves, a state of bondage from which no emancipation short of winning the state lottery has yet been invented.
Some of us fit in with the work world more easily than others because we are willing and able to suppress the natural desire for freedom sufficiently to wake up on time, punch the time clock on time, and generally play by the rules of hours, minutes and seconds. Those of us at the opposite extreme, that is, those of us who are unwilling or unable to submit to the rigors of time, are deemed unemployable. Those of us in this category may find ourselves homeless or at the mercy of public assistance. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat,” was how the old saying went. And if you cannot regiment yourself to the clock, you probably won’t be able to work for very long.
Fortunately, in our day and age, there is a middle ground. There are some jobs that, thank God, still allow people to work even if watching the clock is not very important to them. There is freelance work, telecommuting schemes, and even employers who understand that in many positions it doesn’t make much of a difference if an employee arrives at ten minutes of the hour or ten minutes after.
This is important to me because I am not a morning person and generally like to take my time getting ready for work. I am very fortunate that I have no boss on site to monitor my comings and my goings, and unless I have a meeting to attend, most days it doesn’t much matter whether I come in at seven or at nine, or whether, in the evening, I leave at five or at seven. I put in way more than forty hours per week at work, and I am very grateful that I can “get away with” being flexible with my time.
My wife and I agree on most things, but sadly, this is not one of them. We were definitely on the same page when it came to the father “spending time” with his daughter but “failing to give her the time of day.” But I make my wife very angry when it comes to the fact that I often don’t show up for work “on time.” I see her point; after all, I have worked for employers that liked to chastise their employees about “theft of time.” However, I am pleased that I do not work for such an employer. I don’t bother my employees if they come in 15 minutes late or have to leave 15 minutes early. Big deal.
There are those who say that being an employee involves being a “good steward” of the employer’s resources, and that this includes making it to work on time every day. I believe that this may have once been true, in the days of the Industrial Revolution through the regimented employer practices of the mid-twentieth century. Be that as it may, however, it is simply not for me. As long as I work hard and get the job done, the time I arrive at the office and the time I leave should simply not be an issue. And, I might add, we are not homeless yet.
Clearly, this is a subject upon which my wife and I will simply have to agree to disagree.