Wasting Time

Time is never time enough

Amsterdam, Netherlands. Do not say this to a philosopher but we have more time now than ever before. One would think that since modern men—and modern women too—have more time, they would think less of it. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The same applies to health and money. We are healthier and wealthier than ever, and these facts have neither calmed our fears nor added peace to our souls. Actually, we seem more anxious than ever about how we spend our time.

This newly-won time, occurring on weekends, evenings, and during paid vacations, is called “free time,” and it is a byproduct of industrialization. Delayed marriage and fewer children may have also helped. The majority waste their free time without a second thought, egged on by television, video games, and personal billboards (a.k.a. social networking sites), which they may or may not feel vaguely guilty about. But there is another group—perhaps fifteen percent of Americans—that busies itself with doing and getting and self-betterment. This cadre of overachievers has the opposite problem: it is terrible at wasting time. And even worse at wasting it well. Their days are planned, their evenings booked, futures fixed. From this group comes our leaders, teachers, businessmen, and preachers. Thus, if the likes of YouTube and the proverbial bear pit fill their lists of time wasters, it is commendable. The problem is that they consider leisure to be a waste of time as well. What Joseph Pieper called the basis of culture [1], leisure—activity outside the field of servile work, the retreat from the world to study it (scholé), reflect on it, worship its source, and return refreshed to serve it—is considered to be wasting time. In recent memory, even the everyday connotation of the word has changed to “doing nothing.”

Since the value of work is set so high, it is unlikely that this group of go-getters would soon perceive leisure as a good use of time. Therefore, I will not try to turn the tide, but rather go about it the other way around. What if wasting time were not all that bad? If leisure is the basis of culture, as Joseph Pieper argues, and if we have before us a group of time-conscious (future) leaders that considers leisure a waste of time, then to save the culture of our civilization we should first teach them to waste time. And then how to waste it profoundly.

Descending from pragmatism

I’ll admit it: I belong to the second group. I cannot comfortably “waste” an evening. I must justify it as rest or recuperation or vacation, as if normal life were supposed to be a sixteen hour a day, goal-directed commotion, and only for the limits of the body should I pause. But my mind must remain active whenever possible, even in sleep, as some self-help books tell me it can. Monks invented modern time-keeping devices in the Middle Ages. They wanted to sanctify time more efficiently. Because of them my cell phone has a clock, as does my computer. I look around and see time everywhere (I hear it too). In fact, I had to stop wearing a watch so that I could escape it.

A friend of mine with a penchant for self-effacement said “There’s just not enough time to get the work done and procrastinate.” It is not that he only works well under pressure, he only works under pressure. He reads voraciously in history and poetry when neglecting his dissertation, and (to be honest) drinks too many gins and tonic over good conversation. In our modern age his habits fall under the general category of wasting time, along with, well, just about everything not productive or immediately relating to a “useful” end.

During college, as an act of rebellion against such utility, I often told people that I studied philosophy, which happened to be true. This resulted either in silence (that I could only describe as pitying) or in the standard barrage of questions about how it related to my career goals, prospects, and desire to flip burgers. Now, to avoid telling people that I still study philosophy, I say “I study gynecology. It was my mother’s idea,” and the conversation is done. Both my procrastinating friend and I resist a culture with specific ideas about time (he better than I), its uses and abuses—in other words, a culture of snooty pragmatism. We are certainly in the culture but we try hard not to be of it.

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