When we were in South Africa a few years ago, some friends told us about one of the problems they were dealing with in their multicultural world. Some business owners (who were primarily of European descent) were concerned about the habits of some of their employees (who were primarily of tribal descent). If there was an event, such as a funeral in the village, many of the workers would show up late for work or not at all. The employers saw this behavior as evidence of laziness and were upset at the apparent lack of commitment of the workers.
The employees, on the other hand, had an entirely different perspective. Because of their tribal culture, they had a deeply ingrained value around funerals. Interestingly, a birth, to them, was not nearly as important. A person coming into the world had no accomplishments, no successes, no victories, no character strengths. But a person leaving the world was a different matter altogether. All the experiences, struggles, victories, and successes were now a part of that person and deserving of the greatest honor and recognition. Too, it was believed that those attending a funer al were endowed with a portion of the departed person’s strength. To miss a funeral—to miss the honoring and the receiving—would be unthinkable. And it was assumed that everyone understood.
As we discussed the issue, our friends observed that the two groups of people were looking at time in different ways. The business owners were seeing time from a perspective of chronos,a Greek word meaning chronological time. Chronos time is linear and sequential. No second is worth any more than any other second, and the clock essentially dictates the rhythm of life. If work started at 8:00 a.m., the business owners reasoned, their employees should be there at 7:59, ready to punch the clock.
The employees, on the other hand, were seeing time from a kairos (“appropriate” or “quality” time) perspective. For them, time was something to be experienced. The essence of kairos time was in the value you get out of it rather than in the amount of chronos time you put into it. Thus, the funeral of a friend was supremely important, and they would come to work when the funeral was over. Then it would be “time” to go to work.
In the Western world, the clock reigns supreme. We have clocks on our buildings, clocks on our street signs, clocks around our necks, clocks in our pockets, clocks on our wrists, and clocks in every room of our homes. In fact, because it is such a predominant feature, archaeologists digging up the remnants of our civilization would probably (and perhaps rightly) assume that we worshiped the clock.
As a result, most of us tend to see time as a limited resource. We hurry from task to task. We rush to get things done. A fly on the wall observing our society would probably conclude that one of our highest values is busyness . . . and he (or she) would be absolutely right! For most of us, busyness has become a status symbol. If we’re busy, we must be important. If we’re not busy, we’re almost embarrassed to admit it. So we talk about being busy. We complain about being busy. We lament all we could do if we weren’t so busy. But we keep being busy. We get caught up in the delusion that being busy, over- worked, and at least somewhat out of balance is regrettable, but necessary, in order to validate our sense of self-worth.
We also tend to see time as the enemy. Whether in pulsing analog seconds or smoothly rolling digital minutes, we see time as relentlessly marching on, unerringly barreling its way through deadlines, appointments, crises, to do’s, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and serious decision moments with no regard for person or compassion for circumstance. We feel frustrated. We feel anxious. We’d like to stop time, slow it down, or rush it forward. But we feel helpless. There’s nothing we can do to change it. Minute by minute, time marches on.
In a recent issue of Scientific American featuring time, the editors observed:
Time heals all wounds, but it is also the great destroyer. Time is relative, but also relentless. There is time for every purpose under heaven, but there is never enough. Time flies, crawls, and races. Seconds can be both split and stretched. Like the tide, time waits for no man, but in dramatic moments it also stands still. It is as personal as the pace of one’s heartbeat but as public as the clock tower in the town square . . .
[Time] is the partner of change, the antagonist of speed, the currency in which we pay attention. It is our most precious, irreplaceable commodity. Yet still we say we don’t know where it goes, and we sleep away a third of it, and none of us really can account for how much we have left. We can find 100 ways to save time, but the amount remaining nonetheless diminishes steadily.
With such a variety of attitudes about time itself, no wonder we struggle to “manage” it—or, more appropriately, manage ourselves in it—with effectiveness and peace.
“The Chronic Complaint.” Scientific American, September 2002, p. 10.