Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wasting Time

One thing we Americans hate to do is "waste time." Whether it is in the check-out line at the grocery store, during our morning commute, or running errands on the weekend. It seems that we spend the vast majority of our waking hours getting things done as efficiently as possible. Implicit in the fear of wasting time is the notion that certain critical "things" won't get done. I wonder how often this assumption is accurate?

For instance, fifty years ago we had far more limited transportation, no internet or cell phones, little in the way of fast food, and the term "multitasking" hadn't even been coined yet! Yet somehow people managed to work a job, raise a family, and have some hobbies or pastimes. I don't mean to paint American society idealistically fifty years ago, indeed I do not think that is the case. Instead I am raising the question of how much our increased speed and activity has really benefited our quality of life?

A number of thinkers such as Eckhart Tolle, have proposed that by being so busy, we actually miss out on experiencing what is happening right now. In other words, we are effectively living outside the moment by focusing on accomplishing things in the future (or alternatively obsessing over the past). By living outside the moment we are literally not allowing ourselves to experience real life as it is unfolding, so in a very real sense we are wasting time!

Stopping to experience what is happening right now is often much harder than it appears. For example, walking to my car after work is a great excuse to lose myself in thought, instead of being present to my surroundings. Why would you want to be present to a parking lot you ask? Good question indeed. For one thing, it is real life occurring around you. You are a physical body located in space and time, which currently happens to be a Friday afternoon in an asphalt covered parking lot. Escaping this reality into mental abstraction is terribly tempting, but is it really beneficial to you and your quality of life. Something worth thinking about (no pun intended there!).

I wonder if we stand to learn a lot from other cultures that do not have this deeply ingrained fear of "wasting time?" For instance, during my summer stay in the impoverished country of Mozambique, I noticed that many inhabitants were content to allow the day to unfold at a leisurely pace, to respond to needs and situations as they arise, not obsessing over them in advance. I can't pretend to understand the Mozambican mindset, but I might offer that in a country where the life expectancy is a mere 47 years, that living "in the moment" becomes all that more critical then working toward the future. We have all heard stories or seen films regarding someone who found out that they only have 1 week to live, thus setting them on a fantastic journey to experience as much of life as possible in such a short time. Can you imagine someone who only had 1 week to live spending an inordinate amount of time working toward future goals? It would be silly, as at that point your only goal would be to live as fully as possible.

In the overall scheme of things, is 47 years (or 85 for that matter), really that much different than a week left to live? Of course no one can live all the time in the moment, some planning and working towards the future is inevitable. But will anyone lay on their deathbed and bemoan that they had not spent more time planning and working toward the future, or rather that they had not "wasted" more time in relationship with people and nature?