“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
People’s relationship with time has elicited an overwhelming variety of perceptions: from Romanian chronicler Miron Costin’s fatalistic observation that the individual is “under the governance of time” to Goethe’s impetuous exclamation, “Beautiful moment, do not pass away!”; from the nostalgia of the ancient Romans’ fugit irreparabile tempus to Marx’s assessments of the “socially necessary labour time for the production of a commodity”; from the ticking of the “clock” of the heart to the philosophical fairy tale, “Youth without old age and life without death.” What all these have in common is the regret of too little respite and the feeling that time is never patient or understanding of us mortals.
How can our relationship with time be improved? Beyond the metaphysical approaches, the pains of the past, or the scrutinising of the uncertain future, we have the present. We need a strategy to break out of the cliché of the generic time crunch of the world we live in. We need some viable ideas to make friends with the daily routine of life.
From “time is money”…
The modern age brought with it the acceleration of the pace of life through the impetus of industrialisation, the development of the market, the mechanisms of demand and supply, the accumulation of capital, the use of labour as a commodity, and so on. “Time is money!” is the famous expression of the American scientist and politician Benjamin Franklin, which marked the entire Western world. It is the foundation of the perception of time as a resource: time can also be transformed into a commodity, just like human labour, and its most effective use brings profit.
The assiduous exploitation of time is the foundation of centuries of prosperous Western civilisation, which has tended to become a benchmark for the rest of the planet.
However, just as the westernisation of the East is a geographical impossibility, from a mentality standpoint, it is equally impossible to suddenly impose on a culture a pace of life different from the one already established over centuries or decades, to say the least. This is because the perception of time does not pertain only to civilisation or the standards of progress and technologisation. There are other factors that contribute more to its evolution: mental structure, education, tradition, and the social behaviour of a community. Thus, for example, the culture shock of the peasant who comes to the city and is turned into a worker, or of the German man who learns that his watch is useless in an African country, can be partially explained.
Naturally, attitudes can change over time and rhythms can gradually accelerate, in the name of efficiency and emancipation. However, this requires, first of all, a change in mindset. If the mentality of today’s world holds up progress, a competitive attitude, and raising the standard of living as the ultimate values, then it also sees fit to value time as money and exploit it as a resource.
…to revolution: changing personal perception
Our society now seems to be at a point where, in a forced march and sometimes with hard lessons, it is learning the mentality according to which time equals money. The problem is that, while the goal of progress is evidently worth the effort, in a dysfunctional society that does not properly reward work, prosperity does not depend solely on an individual’s investment of time and effort. The tragic cases of people who died from overwork reported in the press illustrate the extremely fatal discrepancy between hard work and its supposed benefits.
Other cases, however, could bring us back to a more profound reality, more important than the value of prosperity. The late Steve Jobs, the brilliant mind behind the American company Apple, declared that his goal was not to become “the richest man in the cemetery.” In other words, even when sustained effort brings abundance and achievements, some people come to the conclusion that time does not mean money after all.
There is a big difference between prospering and evolving, and this is the revelation that can change our perception of time: a person can prosper without evolving, or vice versa, although the ideal case would be to succeed in both. However, a choice must be made when you find that the value of prosperity and an increased standard of living takes up time that should be devoted to self-realisation, intellectual and spiritual development, reaping the benefits of skills, or refining character and personality.
The great discovery of the post-industrial civilisation, which has a chance to set a more humane standard for the emerging civilisations is the following: time is not money but time is TIME! Indeed, it is a resource, but not a commodity you can sell at just any price. As a resource, it is more similar to the riches of the land, which deserve to be used as judiciously as possible, for personal benefit, but not sold, nor concessioned for life.
Downshifting, a recent social phenomenon
The dictionary meaning of the term, although inspired by technology, now refers to a social phenomenon that is increasingly widespread in the Western world: the slowing down of activity and the simplification of lifestyles. It is an attempt to essentialise effort and activities, to better select priorities, to value everyday time and spiritual wealth more than material wealth. The phenomenon materialised in response to the consumerist and careerist spirit, the rush for luxury, fame, increasingly high standards of living, and exclusive environments for relaxation and socialisation. It is a return to the joy of living more naturally, according to authentic values, not for display, following a natural rhythm instead of a hyper-urbanised one.
Downshifting has influenced approximately a quarter of the active population of countries such as Great Britain, the USA, and Australia, of which 30% are entrepreneurs. The people who decide to “slow the engines” are those who have had the revelation that time is time. They are those who came to the conclusion that, in order to live effectively and with inner satisfaction, they must get off the dizzying rollercoaster that was presented to them for so many years as a unique, much-coveted chance at a Formula One race.
Today, they weigh up what is more advantageous for them, what brings them more satisfaction: more time spent with their children or their life partner instead of a well-paid and lucrative career; proximity to nature and a healthier lifestyle instead of exotic vacations that require big savings; budget-friendly clothes, which do not impress with luxury, instead of expensive branded clothes that maintain a successful image; taking care of their health and spending holidays and weekends with family and friends instead of sleepless nights and well-paid overtime; houses in the suburbs or in the countryside, with clean air and unpolluted nature instead of homes centrally located in metropolises—in essence, working to live instead of living to work.
Psychologist Eugen Dumbravă says: “The Downshifter is freed from the dictatorship of time and the need of having and moves towards a more relaxed and open way of knowing oneself and others.”
Ever since the 19th century, literature has presented the evils of modern life dominated by money. Miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, realised late in life that an existence of enslaving work and dehumanising business only leads to a sad, wealthy, yet lonely old age, even when you are not alone.Therefore, the exchange of time for money is pitiful and desolating—this is the social lesson derived from prosperity in its materialistic, commercial, and consumerist dimension. Will we—those left behind, those who strive to overcome the social gap, to adapt, and to thrive—have to go through the same suffering, following the footsteps of others, or will we learn from their mistakes? Will we let ourselves be fooled by the jewels of our time, or will we know that in it lies the “pearl of great value”?
Eisenhower’s Matrix, a judicious division of labour
General Dwight Eisenhower, former US President, used to classify and prioritise tasks and workload according to a four-quadrant box, the “Eisenhower Matrix”, which was named after him. The first quadrant includes what is urgent and important, the second, what is important but not urgent, the third, what is urgent but not important, and the last, what is neither urgent nor important. Once you have assigned all tasks to one of the four quadrants, you can determine how to streamline your daily activity.
Evidently, the fourth quadrant should be ignored because it most likely includes non-essential things, or ways to evade and interfere with productive activities and actions. Regarding the third quadrant, it is advisable to delegate the tasks to someone else, whether they are collaborators or subordinates.The first quadrant is the top priority and daily effort should be focused on it. The second quadrant, however, is the one that can be improved by changing your mindset about time. Since these are not tasks that fit into a daily routine or a monthly or annual schedule, they can end up being neglected, postponed or completely ignored.
How can making new friends, regaining your child’s trust or morally supporting a brother who is going through tough times be included in the time interval from 5pm to 10pm? How can you plan a vacation where you can fall in love and start a family? On what lunch break can you bring comfort to your parents who feel you’ve grown apart and are distracted? What weekend should you discover you have a talent for storytelling? During which phone conversation should you express your gratitude to your mentor? During which sleepless night should you pray more sincerely, more deeply? On which hospital bed should you have a meeting with yourself, the forgotten one, the neglected one, the good one?
The taming of time
All of these aspects are important, and if they cease to be, then the process of alienation is in full swing. How can they be brought into the light of consciousness and soul? By giving them more of our time, even if they are in a potentiality that has yet to be converted into reality. By not letting ourselves be seized by strictness and shrillness. By not confusing what’s urgent but will be forgotten in a month with what’s important but won’t happen overnight. Preparing our souls for them and being open to creating or reacting to them. Distinguishing which ones to initiate, which to welcome or to wait for. Maintaining a privileged time of reflection on them, of anticipating or invoking them. Appreciating and being grateful for each moment for what it gives us instead of postponing appreciation or gratitude for more noteworthy future times. Keeping a childlike perception of time, fresh, naive, almost magical, full of vitality and confidence in our steady way through a world that is not the endgame. Learning about their authentic value not from the narrow context and the profane time, but from the One who offered to be our Teacher; a Teacher who educates us by asking us for time and giving us TIME.
These are the aspects that make time no longer translatable into material goods, but make it one that is worth living. It is the few moments of grace that people accumulate in a lifetime that give value to their existence and nurture their souls for the rest of their lives.
This is because moments of grace are not measured in physical time. They extend to eternity; that is, to a dimension that would have been inconceivable to mankind, as mortal beings, in a finite world, if God had not “set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
The life of any individual encompasses the exceptional to the same extent that they are able, through accumulated inner wealth, to perceive events as exceptional. Otherwise, the most amazing miracles can go unnoticed in the life of someone who is closed-off, dissatisfied, grumbling, and empty inside.
In order to have access to the time of grace and miracles, mankind must transcend temporal time. One such journey can help us to be efficient, optimistic and lively, knowing that time itself is no longer a tyrant or a pagan god that swallows its sons, but a subject tamed by the “Everlasting Father.”
Corina Matei is a PhD associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations, part of the “Titu Maiorescu” University, Bucharest.