The Time of our Lives?

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 17 April 2005

I remember once when I was maybe about 10 years old, I was stressed by my homework. I was doing what seemed at the time to be a big project, a world map with textures…little mountain range peaks etc. I’d been working on it non stop since school finished in the afternoon, and then in the evening, Mum said that I had to go to bed. I remember that my response was, firstly, panic, and then the statement ‘I don’t have time to go to bed!’

I’ve had several evenings like that since I was 10…and since then my experience of time panic setting in has affected more than just my bedtime. ‘I don’t have time to eat lunch’, ‘I don’t have time to do exercise’, ‘I don’t have time to read a book’, ‘I don’t have time to pray’.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to look at the way time functions in my own life, the extent to which I’m ruled by time anxiety and time pressure. I stopped wearing a watch, so I couldn’t look at the time as frequently. I started trying to be a few minutes late to things, so I could learn that the sky wouldn’t fall in if I wasn’t always two minutes early (I haven’t succeeded very well with that one). I think I’ve learned some stuff about my relationship to time, but its relentless shadow is still very much part of my internal anxiety structures.

And then I read an article in the most recent Listener about how time operates in our society more broadly, and learned that maybe it’s not just my problem! So I thought I’d bring some reflections on time this morning, and to ask the questions ‘how might God want us to relate to time?’, and ‘how can my spiritual life unhook me from the tyranny of time pressure?’
Before I ask those questions though, here’s a brief summary of the problem, as outlined in the Listener article ‘The Race to Beat Stress’.

According to the article, and my own observations, we live in an instant society, where various kinds of technology have sped up our expectations of what we can expect to get done in a short space of time. Most of us find waiting very difficult – the slow loading web page, a driver in front of us going at, or slightly under the speed limit. Added to this, we have a high level of sensory stimulation, even overload. One of the things that staggered me most in the article was the example of the new Sony discman which allows users to close the gaps on CDs…the advertising quote being ‘so you can enjoy playing with less blank space between tracks’. This struck me as emblematic of what we are expected to do in all aspects of life, not just CDs – to close the gaps between the various activities that fill our days, thereby eliminating the blank spaces for rest and reflection.

This instantness, this commitment to speed, is affecting our internal relationship to time. The article refers to a doctor who had patients sit in a chair and guess when a minute had elapsed. The record went to a manager who said ‘that’s a minute’ after only 9 seconds had gone by. Our inner clocks are wound up by work and social pressures. For many of us, workplaces are environments that are constantly pushing for more, faster…the re-setting of bigger and better goals, targets, performance outcomes. I think of the little boy in the telecom ad who ‘thinks fast, sleeps fast, blinks fast,’ and needs email that goes faster than his brain. That’s Telecom’s vision of the future…is that something we are actively choosing for ourselves?

What many of us are now asking our brains to do is multi-task…the assumed efficiency that comes from doing several things at once – a seeming answer to the problem of ‘not enough time.’ However, what is now being discovered by some researchers is the limitations of the kind of thinking that multi-tasking demands. Not only does multi-tasking result in more errors, short attention spans and actually taking much more time to accomplish basic tasks…ongoing multi-tasking can affect short term memory, and the prolonged adrenalin rush from it can damage cells that form new memory. And it’s not just multi-tasking at work – we multi-task in our leisure…on the internet, cooking, watching TV and listening to music all at once.

As a result, we may be in danger of losing subtlety and wisdom from our society. When the brain is asked to do too much it goes into survival mode – a kind of black and white thinking, that only engages a small part of our intelligence and that flattens the complexities of problems and situations into over-simplified responses. To be truly creative and wise, we need time for the unconscious part of our brains to kick in, time resting, playing, dreaming, walking, sleeping. Because it’s at these times that new insight and deep connections can emerge.

Hence the kind of ‘slow movement’ resistance that has developed in protest against the way we’re being shaped towards speed in all things. The slow movement includes slow food – cooked from basic ingredients, and savoured in the eating of it, and slow cities – with more pedestrian areas and green spaces, street markets and so on. Basically the slow movement encourages people to take pleasure in things by taking the time to notice them, and aims to release people to think about the bigger questions of life: questions of values and community and self and God.

What proponents of the slow movement find is that there’s quite a strong social taboo against slowing down. Our society is quick to label slow-moving people as lazy, unambitious, incompetent, work averse, self-indulgent and irresponsible. ‘How dare such and such not reply to my email within 24 hours? They shouldn’t have email if they’re not going to fit in with the expectations of rapid response.’ Or, ‘so and so went home at 4.30 today. I’ve been here every night this week until 7pm. They’re not pulling their weight.’ But maybe it’s the intentionally slow who actually make the greatest contribution to the social, emotional, spiritual wellbeing of our time-stressed world.

I’d like to suggest that the situation as I just presented it, is not the way we are created to be, and not at all conducive to a healthy spiritual life. I’m not suggesting that we need to be luddites to be connected to God. Just questioning whether the world as we experience it, where busyness is considered a virtue, is a world that fits with what we know of God, or even what we know about ourselves.

I think that for myself, one way that I need to be constantly renewed in my thinking and feeling is my perspective of what is important. What, ultimately, do I need to achieve in this life? Why am I here? When it comes down to it, as a child of God, there is only one thing that needs my primary time, care and attention, and that’s God, my connection with God, my becoming who I am in Christ. Alongside that one main thing are my relationships with family and friends, my work, my service of others, my physical wellbeing – all the ways in which I fulfil my needs for love, food and shelter, and through which I work out my service to God, and my creative potential. They are the ways in which I express my primary relationship with God.

But there’s a level below this important stuff which are the daily tasks and deadlines, the smaller goals that generate sometimes unbearable stresses and pressures. These daily requirements can become the main things, the only things, that I can see when I wake in the morning. Usually, though, if I can see them through the lens of my one main task – to know and be known by God – they shrink into a smaller significance, and some of them I can drop out of my day altogether, as no longer important. I find Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount valuable here: ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear… but seek first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’

Another perception shift that I find myself needing to make in my life is the shift out of ‘chronos’ and into ‘kairos’. These are the two Greek words translated as ‘time’ in the New Testament. They express two quite different understandings about time. ‘Chronos’ is clock time, calendar time. It’s expressed in timetables and schedules, and the passing of minutes, days and weeks. It’s human time. ‘Kairos’ is the word that is used in the Bible to express God’s timing – in the ‘fullness of time’, ‘at the right time’ – and it’s used specifically to refer to the timing of Jesus’ arrival into the world. Kairos is time measured in significance, and by the choice of God…we live in Kairos time when we pay attention to natural rhythms, and energy and fatigue, and when we judge the moment of our activity to fit with the ‘time of ripeness’. Sometimes this is as simple as knowing ‘if I do this task this afternoon, it will take me four hours, because I’m exhausted and not thinking straight, but if I do it tomorrow morning, I’ll probably polish it off in an hour.’ Or, it could be the discernment to know when to speak and when to listen, when to work, when to embark on a new phase of life, and when to spend time with someone even though it’s a disruption to ‘the schedule’. It is in ‘kairos’ mode that we are most aware of God and available to be shaped by God’s eternal, unrestricted nature.

‘Kairos’ thinking sees time as a gift, rather than a commodity. It’s when time becomes a scarce commodity that anxiety kicks in for me – I talk of ‘wasting time’ or ‘losing time’ or not having ‘enough time’ or having to ‘make time.’ But when I can see time as God’s gift to me, when I can believe that at any moment I can pause the clock, and reach out and touch the eternity of God that is always present, then I don’t need to be anxious any more. I love this statement from Andy Rider, a vicar in inner city London – ‘we do not need to find more time, or replace that which is gone, for time everlasting is already ours to touch and walk in.’ That is our inheritance from God.

God’s time is different from ours. And I don’t just mean in the philosophical sense of God being timeless, or outside time. But that God’s rhythms, even when God interacts in human history, seem to be longer than those of the modern world. And in this difference is the experience of human waiting. We have seasons of waiting built into the Christian year, to help reflect on this. In particular, Advent is a time of waiting, of learning that God acts ‘in the right time’, and not necessarily our time. There is something to be gained from waiting – some stripping down, some stillness, some learning to trust, and learning about ourselves. These are things that our current society, with its emphasis on speed and instant gratification, will never let us learn, unless we are struck down by a crisis. In our society, those who have known illness, grief, long term unemployment, or some other period of waiting have a wisdom that goes far beyond what most people will gain by being caught up in the world of rapid fulfilment. I think that we can learn to ‘wait well’ in small ways, by noticing how we respond to queues, traffic jams, waiting rooms, or late arrivals of other people. Can we receive those experiences as free time – a gift of time to be still, to become calm, to reflect, to think, to pray?

So, these are some of the ways that what we know of God challenges our current society – the perspective of what’s worth worrying about, the difference between chronos and kairos, the perception of time as gift rather than commodity, and the value of waiting.
Now I want to offer a few brief reflections as to how we, as participants in our society, can connect to a more God-centred experience of time.

Firstly, something that I notice is that there are natural rhythms in life that are much more gently paced than the rhythms of the ticking of the clock. The smallest natural unit of passing time that we can measure without clocks, sundials etc. is the day and the night – the hours of light and darkness. Beyond this is the seasonal rhythm of spring, summer, autumn and winter. These are the rhythms of our planet. And while there are all sorts of things that happen rapidly in the natural world, I would suggest that in general, as physical creatures, mammals, we would do well to notice these basic rhythms of the earth and align ourselves more with them than with the human constructs of clocks and alarms.

Alongside natural rhythms are the rhythms of attentiveness to God and others that can help us to slow our pace. Meals and time shared with others, and regular prayer. The monastic order of life was based on a rule that regulated time by prayer…the ‘hours’ of the monastic life were the prayers offered every three hours through the day. One of the ten commandments of God to the Israelites is actually to do with time – it’s the keeping of the Sabbath. One day in each week to rest, and to be attentive to God. It’s included in the account of creation – a pattern of labour and rest…a time to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’, and, as it’s picked up in the new testament, a reminder of redemption, our participation in the eternal Sabbath rest of God. The life we see Jesus living in the gospels is a pattern of prayer and activity, and from Jesus come the words that have been so important to our community here – Matthew 11:28-30 ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’ These rhythms of grace are partly spiritual and emotional, but they’re also rhythms of physical living, and social existence. They are rhythms that consist of time for God, time for ourselves, time for others, time for rest and prayer. Everything else we do needs to be built on the foundations of these rhythms, rather than letting work and the clock set the rhythm and trying to fit rest and God in round the edges.

The passage that I quoted before, from the sermon on the mount, about seeking first the kingdom of God, goes on to say the following: ‘so do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ The final suggestion I have around adjusting our relationship to time is learning to live in ‘today’, rather than ‘tomorrow’. Andrew tells me that in Dante’s Inferno, the souls in one part of hell are condemned to always see the future, not the present or the past. I think that a life lived in constant reference to the future is indeed a kind of hell, a life where the enjoyment or the needs of the moment are deferred or overrun by concern about what’s coming next. Thinking about the future can be fun for dreaming and wishing, and it’s necessary for planning, but it’s also the source of anxiety, and greed and driving ambition. Contentment with the present is a great gift, and allows time to open out and events to be themselves. The present moment is where God is now, and therefore where eternity is now.

Stress and busyness are prevailing aspects of the culture in which we live. They are practically requirements of a life deemed worthy by those who shape our values. I’d like to suggest that they are pathways to death – not only literal death caused by the body’s response to stress, but spiritual death, caused by an absence of the space and stillness required to cultivate depth in our relationships to God, ourselves and each other. The daily routines of our culture do not allow room for the sacred. To choose life, to choose God, I think we also have to choose against the way our culture encourages us to relate to time. I find that incredibly hard. It’s probably the single most recurring obstacle to my spiritual life, and my ability to love others. I pray for me, for all of us, the grace to find alternative time rhythms to those offered by the culture. And I’ll end with a poem called ‘Slow me down, Lord’, from this book ‘When I Relax I feel Guilty’.