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The Harvard economic historian David Landes authored a magisterial work titled “Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of The Modern World”. The book makes a compelling and convincing case for placing the ‘timepiece’ (more than the steam engine and power looms) at the frontispiece of Western economic development. However this seemingly innocuous invention which was primarily meant to bring about a systematic praying regimen for a set of Benedictine monks, has turned out to be both an indisputable boon as well as an indispensable bane. Our lives are now dictated, compartmentalized, divided and conducted by pre-determined slices of statistical denomination.
American physicist, writer and social entrepreneur, Alan Lightman, in his book “In Praise of Wasting Time”, examines the frenzied pace that is the direct outcome of the stimulus of time on mankind. There is no more lengthy, idyllic and leisurely ‘passage’ of time. Time hurtles, careens and storms by and past us, always ensuring that we are multiple steps behind in a vain attempt to catch up with it. The book is more a soulful expression of loss than a full blown jeremiad. Lightman fascinatingly blends personal experiences with empirical studies in producing an impassionate plea to his fellow human beings to stop, reflect, and slow down.
However, due to a contrivance of circumstances and geography, there are some people who are oblivious to the demands and tensions birthed by a ticking clock. The villagers of Tramung Chrum in Cambodia inhabit one-room huts whose illumination is provided by light bulbs powered by car batteries. The women of Tramung Chrum rise along with the sun and set off on bicycles along red dirt roads for trading goods. Their destination, the nearest market, 10 miles away. When asked how long these exacting trips took, one of the women seemed positively perplexed before answering “I never thought about that.”
But we need not flee to Tramung Chrum abdicating materialism and filial responsibilities in order to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of time. Gertrude Stein wandered about the countryside looking at cows, in between her writing. Gustav Mahler was known to take off regularly on a three or four hour post prandial walk, pausing to take down notes and ideas in his notebook. Lightman himself fondly reminisces about the days when on his way back from school he used to take leisurely detours, wondering about the future of tadpoles and marveling about the ripples formed on the surface of a lake.
The disturbing phenomenon called Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) has gripped the youth of our contemporaneous world. Gripping cell phones tight even while sleeping, an entire generation is held to ransom by the tentacles of an all pervasive technology. Every message, tweet, like and post is a trigger for a cascading flow of unceasing communication. A singularly peculiar medium of communication where there is more often than not no response from the other side. Lightman describes this singularity in gripping fashion. “A few years ago I went out to dinner with my then twenty-five year old daughter and her friends. As soon as they sat down, the young women placed their smartphones on the table, like miniature oxygen tanks carried everywhere by emphysema patients. Every minute or two, one or the other of them glanced down at her device to see what new messages had arrived and to send out other messages…the world for them has been chopped up into two-minute segments between hits on the internet.” Lightman himself succumbed to the allure of a smartphone, despite resisting its seduction for a very long time. The inspiration behind Lightman’s surrender to technology was the GPS technology embedded in his son’s smartphone. When Lightman and his family were hopelessly and dangerously lost in a cocoon of fog while on their family boat, his son’s GPS turned savior and in a matter of days, Lightman’s life underwent a sea change (no pun intended).
However, the slim volume does not take into account the compulsions and vicissitudes which necessarily ensure that there is no alternative to leading life other than by segments decided by the clock. A woman who also happens to be a single parent, and desperately working multiple jobs to provide for her children cannot even envisage taking a temporary break, let alone wallow in a state of contemplative leisure. What matters to her most are notions such as overtime and time off – which in other words may mean the difference between paying rent and getting evicted.
While it might be a pipe dream to emulate the bucolic existence of the 1950s (unless one’s father happens to be named Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos), there are avenues to which recourse may be taken to cut down the frenetic pace of modern day life that threatens to transform into something dangerously preternatural. We can carefully follow Lightman’s advice of incorporating time for introspection into days and instituting a period of silence at schools as well as a device-free hour at home. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time.”
Maybe we can glean a bit of inspiration from the ancient Greeks in this regard. They had two words to describe time, Chronos and Kairos. While the former is used to denote a subversive notion of time that can be measured and counted, the latter is time in a sense of being lived and experienced. Chronos is quantitative whereas Kairos is qualitative. Chronos dissects not just our activities, but life itself into hours, minutes and seconds, while Kairos demands contemplation, conduct and camaraderie without the underlying rigours of time. In fact in the year 1985, when a group of black South African theologians wrote a response to crackdowns by the Apartheid government, they called the report, “The Kairos Document”.
“In Praise of Wasting Time” is a sincere and well intentioned attempt to disengage from the Protestant Ethic that frowns on idle time. It is also a clarion call for appreciating the concept of “downtime” for what it actually represents and for obliterating the negative connotations attached to the term.