Four Ways to Escape the Clock

You need spaces where you can lose track of time.

Think of the moments of your life that you treasure. I keep mine wrapped up in memory like embers, to be revisited on cold, dark days. An evening of food and poetry at a professor’s house when we were homeless college students. A walk in the falling snow back home at Christmastime, when the lights glimmered on silent roads and there was nowhere else to be. A few brilliant lectures and conversations, the kind that shifted all my horizons.

Sometimes we encounter moments that unfold into unexpected depths and chambers. They are like the stable in The Last Battle that was larger on the inside than the outside. You feel as though, after skimming along the top of life, you’ve suddenly gotten back into your own skin.

I suspect that it is common for us, children of the postmodern era, to experience time in this way: as stretches of meaningless hours and days, interspersed with islands of significance that come like gifts. T.S. Eliot writes of timeless moments, separated by “waste sad time / Stretching before and after.” These rare moments, which feel as if they are occurring outside of time, really only carry you out of your awareness of time. Instead of calculating them from the outside, you live them.

But there are other ways to experience time. If Marshall McLuhan is right, the conception of time as dead space between islands, or a screen between us and life, is a symptom of the industrial world, ultra-dependent on the clock.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan describes how the invention of the clock altered our sense of reality. The clock first allowed us to visualize time as a space between two points. Our frustration with delay, and our concept of time as currency that can be spent, saved, or wasted, originated with our use of the clock. Not all cultures have thought of time as something to be “filled in.” McLuhan points to non-westernized cultures, like the Hopi Indians, for whom time is “what happens when the corn matures or a sheep grows up. . . . It is the natural process that takes place while living substance acts out its life drama.” These people measure time by the rhythms and growth of each thing, and by seasonal cycles.

The clock was a marvelous invention for the business world. It allows us to visualize time, so that we can parse our days into uniform little pieces. Those seconds and minutes help us to coordinate our lives wonderfully efficiently. They allow for exactitude and minimal delay—essential for accomplishing things in business.

Clock-time belongs to what Josef Pieper calls the “workaday world.” This is “the utilitarian world, the world of the useful, subject to ends, open to achievement and subdivided according to functions; it is the world of demand and supply, of hunger and satiety.” Here calculation, rationality, and efficiency are all-important; and every action has an aim outside itself—the making of money, or the satisfaction of needs.

Both the workaday world and the clock are necessary to life. But Pieper worries that

the world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demands of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they make a ‘total’ claim upon the whole of human nature.

In order to transcend the workaday world and find meaning apart from our striving, we need periods of leisure. Pieper defines leisure as a form of silence, in which “the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed.” In the posture of leisure, we stop trying to harness the world for useful purposes, and instead affirm the present for its own sake.

If we want to live wholesome lives, we need to find ways to escape the clock in our leisure hours. The progression of hands or digital numbers isn’t really time. It’s an abstracted, two-dimensional representation of time. And if we aren’t wary, clock-time can abstract us out of a real experience of time in the world, where moments may hold depths unmeasurable by ticking hands.

In a world obsessed with calculation and productivity, how can one escape the tyranny of the clock? You’ll have to experiment. The workaday world may be everywhere, but you can slip out from under its gaze long enough to get some fresh air, if you’re clever. Here are four suggestions to get you started.

1. Be OK with boredom.

In the Washington D.C. area where I live, it’s a truism that time is more precious than money; for us, being bored feels like a sin. Boredom is also uncomfortable. It’s the culprit inspiring much of our inane entertainment and compulsive phone use.

But philosophers have argued for centuries that facing boredom is good for us, and a number of recent studies now back up their wisdom. Existential boredom forces you to take stock of who you are relative to God and the world, and to come to terms with your feelings about both. But boredom, in all its varieties, is also a catalyst for creativity, for conversation, and for the deepest kinds of thought.

2. Set aside clock-free periods.

Whenever you sit down to a leisure activity—reading a book, drinking a glass of wine, conversing, or playing with your children—put away your watch and phone. Ignoring the clock is a way to shed the pressures of the workaday world, so you can, as Pieper says, “steep yourself in the whole of creation.”

You need spaces where it’s safe to lose track of time, and live like a king with all the time in the world. You need times when you have no aim other than to enjoy being human. If you’re ambitious, turn off your clocks for a weekend, to observe how your sense of time changes. If you survive it, you’ll find this an interesting experiment.

3. Avoid the temptation to multi-task.

The force of this temptation for you is a good measure of the workaday world’s sway in your life. Texting while you study, listening to music while you check Facebook and cook dinner, typing emails while you chat with your spouse; multi-tasking is a misguided attempt to squeeze the most out of scarce time. We know it’s not healthy and isn’t even productive. And yet we still do it, compulsively, because we picture time as a space to be filled up.

This is shallow living. In trying to do several things at once, we cheapen time by behaving as though no particular moment, place, or activity were worth fully inhabiting.

4. Dive into the moment via art.

Some entertainment merely helps you skim faster over expanses of minutes. But the best art can alter the way you feel time. I don’t know how it is that To the Lighthouse and Barber’s violin concerto manage to infuse a lifetime into an hour. But really, artists have always known what scientists only learned in the last century: that time and space are complex and multi-dimensional.

“Clocks slay time,” says one of William Faulkner’s time-haunted characters. “Only when the clock stops does time come to life.”  I’m not about to stop my clocks. But we all can find periods, every day or at least on the weekends, in which we turn a deaf ear to the ticking, and wait for time to come to life.

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