Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Time on My Hands

Time on My Hands

Not long ago, someone who had just noticed the first couple of posts on this blog, commented to me, "Hey, I saw your blog." "Oh really?" I responded. "Yeah," he said, "And my first thought was, 'This guy has way too much time on his hands.'"

Although the comment was (I think) intended to be somewhat "tongue in cheek," it brought to mind a number of the often subtle (but sometimes not so subtle) assumptions about time and how it should best be used that have become deeply ingrained in the lifestyles of many, maybe most, of the people I know. Among these are:

  • Busyness is a virtue. We have this love/hate relationship with being busy. As Wayne Muller so insightfully points out in his book Sabbath,
    ". . . I am so busy. We say this to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a mark of real character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know that the sun has set at all), too whiz through our obligations without time for a single, mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life."(Page 2-3).

  • Productivity is the point. That's not to say that productivity is not a point, simply that it is not the point, and certainly not the most important point. My good friend Clarence Schilt often spoke of how, when talking with people during those last hours of their life, what he never heard them say was, "I wish I had been away from home more, had acquired more stuff, or been busier." The issues were most often relational ones.
  • You are what you do. This is the subtle assumption that often lies behind one of the first questions we ask people when we are becoming acquainted, "So, what do you do?" Rarely do we ask about significant people in their lives, or the things that give their lives depth and meaning. As a result we tend to define people, primarily, in terms of their profession rather than their person. This may seem harmless enough at first, except that once our core identity begins to shift in that direction, there is often a tendency to begin to measure our significance not so much in terms of who we are, but how well we seem to be performing, producing, or meeting the expectations of the role or vocation we find ourselves in. From there, it is a small step to assigning value based on outcomes, and before we know what has happened, something that was once a gracious expression of who we are, becomes an anxious reflection of trying to be good enough. And so we become busy. (Have you seen the bumper sticker, "Jesus is coming soon - look busy!"?). This, by the way, is why Sabbath (one day a week where those distinctions are laid aside in celebration of a different kind of identity that is based on the realization that God is the Creator, and we are not) is such an important gift to our world.
  • Faster is better. Those of us who have lived through a significant segment of the evolution of computer technology, can still remember when waiting a minute or two for a program to process a request or a document to print seemed remarkably fast . . . and so can still appreciate the irony in the feelings of impatience that can arise when when a web page takes more than a second or two to load. What is increasingly unnerving to me, is the realization that the generations that follow mine no longer feel the irony - fast and faster is what they expect, and is the only reality they know. Again, the trouble is not so much that computers are fast and productive, but that this way of thinking about time, like a slow (ironically) acting poison, bleeds into the relational aspects of life. Meaningful, enduring relationships are neither fast or efficient, and when we yield to the steady, subtle pressure of our culture to think of them in those terms, we can find ourselves thinking of or relating to people as objects to be managed rather than people to come to know.
There is of course much more that could be said about the phenomena of the collapse of space and time that is taking place in our world today, and the implications it has for our relationships with each other and our spiritual lives. (In fact, as a part of his doctoral work, Paul Jensen [one of the founders of The Leadership Instititue {}] has done some very insightful work on this topic that is worth checking into). But what is so insidious about it, is the way in which the changes that it brings about come in under the radar for most of us. In all kinds of obvious and subtle ways (of which the comments of my friend are only one example), like a slow and steady dripping faucet, a more relational experience of time is slowly eroded away to be replaced with something faster, more efficient, more productive, and less meaningful.

One of the things that spiritual practices like Sabbath keeping, hospitality, honoring the body, prayer, meditation, journaling, gathering together as families or in larger communities, etc. have in common is their commitment to being intentional about setting aside and protecting relational space and time so we can better resist the forces that can so easily change our trajectories, or capture us in their orbits. "Way too much time on our hands" may be exactly what we need.

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