On the surface it might seem like nothing more than a saying that we use use to let others know how busy we are, but when you think about it, it actually goes much deeper than that.
For many of us it seems quite normal to treat time as a precious commodity that mustn’t be wasted. For some there’s a sense of guilt if every day isn’t filled with useful enterprise. We’re very aware that our time is limited and there’s much that needs to be done. There’s just not enough hours in the day at times.
But is this actually the case?
Some cultures have a much more relaxed approach to time and for some there’s no concept of time at all. Talking about the Nuer Tribe in South Sudan, English anthropologist, E. Evans Pritchard said:
‘The Nuer have no expression equivalent to ‘time’ in our language, and they cannot therefore as we can, speak of time as though it were something actual which passes, can be wasted, can be saved and so forth. I do not think that they ever experience the same feeling of fighting against time, or of having to co-ordinate activities with an abstract passage of time, because their points of reference are mainly the activities themselves, which are generally of a leisurely character. Events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision. Nuer are fortunate.’
Even in our society the ‘time is money’ metaphor is a relatively new concept.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution people were task orientated and did whatever they needed to survive and their work took just as long as it needed to take. They farmed their land or worked in cottage industries, producing goods and trading at market. Work would have been hard and tiring, but built into their lives would be natural periods of rest, times when work was impossible or less demanding. Much of their work was governed by the changing seasons and weather conditions. Sheep farmers spent longer periods working during lambing season, crops were harvested when they were ready, fruit and berries gathered when ripe and hay was made whilst the sun shined. They were motivated to work long and hard because their survival depended upon it.
Socialising was as a normal part of every day activity and there was no distinction between work and leisure time.
When people began to work outside their home in mills and factories, the mill owners found it more desirable to pay their workers for defined periods of time rather than for the amount of work done and so began the whole concept that time was a valuable commodity.
Now there was a distinction between the workers own time and that which was being paid for (and therefore ‘owned’ by the employer). For the first time, time itself became a currency and the employer needed to make sure that he was getting what he was paying for. On the other hand now that workers were receiving payment for the amount of time at work and not reaping the natural reward of their labours, they had no inclination to work any harder than they could get away with.
This led to enforcements and fines. Some employers even went so far as to locking their clocks so that workers couldn’t fiddle with them and bring their shifts forward to an early finish.
Eventually the two concepts time and money became neurologically linked so that by now it feels perfectly natural to think about the former in terms of the latter and we use expressions to that effect all the time:
I ’m running out of time. I don’t have time to spare. He’s living on borrowed time. Don’t waste my time. I’ve spent a lot of time on this. Can you lend me some of your time? Time is precious. This is a time saving device. You need to invest some time in this project. I’ve invested years of my life in this relationship. I’m going to buy myself some more time.
If we, as a society, think of time as a valuable commodity, it follows that we’re likely to have similar values about time as those we have about money.
However the metaphor is misleading because time isn’t actually like money at all. It can’t be quantified. It isn’t a figure in a bank account that can go into authorized overdraft. It isn’t a coin, or a piece of paper, or a sack of potatoes that can have a determined value attached to it. It’s subjective and not a measurable commodity at all. A half hour can seem either like a passing moment or a lifetime depending on the situation we’re in.
We can’t repay time in the same way that we can repay a physical commodity. If someone lends me a cup of sugar I know what that means. I can repay them with an equal amount of the same substance. But if someone gives me an hour of their time, what does this mean? I can’t ever give them that hour back. They’re an hour older and an hour closer to death. I can give them an hour of my time, but this doesn’t make them an hour younger again.
I wonder if this metaphor is responsible for the anxiety that seems common in our society, the need to be busy and not waste time. If we see time as a limited commodity and feel that there’s a shortage, wouldn’t it follow that we’d be more likely to worry about wasting it? Does it make us too careful with our time, to the point of meanness maybe, because we don’t want to give away something of value for nothing?
Could this mindset stop us from enjoying just being in the moment? Does it make us feel we’re being wasteful when we’re not producing or achieving? Is it a waste of time to take pleasure in doing nothing, or to sometimes just be still and at peace without feeling the need to use our time wisely?
In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle says:
‘As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out of present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care and love – even the most simple action.’
Maybe another metaphor for time would serve us better? I’m not sure how it would work but how about ‘time is a gift’. We could then be free to savor it, not as something to be earned and saved and spent wisely, not as something to be miserly with, but as something freely given, a treasure to be enjoyed in the moment and to be shared freely with those we love.
References and related articles
http://www.businessinsider.com/how-different-cultures-understand-time-2014-5 (accessed 6 July 2014)
Thompson, EP., Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism. Oxford University Press.
https://libcom.org/files/timeworkandindustrialcapitalism.pdf (accessed 6 July 2014)
Koveecses, Z (2005). Metaphor in Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge Press.