A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
September 23, 2011 0

A time for everything?

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There’s an old anecdote that haunts me as I rush about my life in the global fast-lane. It’s about a Western traveler in another culture, in a hurry to get to the end of the journey. One version goes like this:

In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveler was making a long trek. Local tribesmen had been engaged to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveler had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the second morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested. On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behavior, the traveler was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.

In his 1999 book God for a Secular Society Jürgen Moltmann writes of the impoverishing effects of our Western battle with time:

Modern men and women are ‘always on the go’, so wherever they are, they are always pressed for time. Is it the Christian understanding of time as irreversible, and as an unstoppable ‘ever-rolling stream’, flowing out of the future into the past, that has plunged us into this shortage of time? How can we be rescued from it?

Never before did human beings have as much free time as they have today, and never did they have so little time. Time has become ‘precious’ too, because ‘time is money’. The world offers us endless possibilities, but our life-span is brief. Consequently many people fall into a panic in case they should miss out on something, and they try to step up their pace of living. The utopia of overcoming space and time by way of high-speed trains, faxes and E-mail, Internet and videos, is a modern utopia. Everywhere we want to ‘keep up’ with things – the phrase is significant in itself. We want to be omnipresent in space and simultaneous in time. That is our new God-complex.

The difference between our life-span and the possibilities offered by the world tempts us into ‘a race against time’. We want to save time, so as to get more out of life, and miss out on life in the very attempt. … We have more and more ‘contacts’ and ‘know’ a great many people.

Fast food has become the symbol of our fast life. The modern revved-up human is fed by McDonald’s, poor devil. He has plenty of experiences, but actually experiences none of them because he wants to have seen everything and to hold on to it on slides or videos; but he doesn’t take it in or assimilate any of it. He has contacts in plenty but no relationships, because he ‘can’t stay’, but is always in a hurry. He gulps down his fast food, standing up if possible, because he is incapable of enjoying anything any more; for to enjoy something takes time, and time is what one doesn’t have.

Modern men and women have no time, because they are always out to ‘save’ time. Because we can’t prolong our lives to any appreciable degree, we have to hurry in order to ‘get as much as possible out of life’.

Modern men and women ‘take their own lives’ in the double sense of the phrase: by snatching at life, they kill it. The brevity of time is not diminished one single second by accelerated life. On the contrary, it is by being afraid of not getting one’s share and missing out on something that one falls short, and misses out on everything.

The clock is the modern world’s key machine, for it regulates everything. An Indian sage said to a friend of mine last year: ‘You have the clock – we have time.’ The mechanical time of our omnipresent clocks dominates our lives. For the clock, it is a matter of indifference whether the time it ticks off was empty or filled, whether we were sickened by boredom or whether ‘time flew’. Sixty minutes, and the hour is past.

Mechanical time takes no account of time as we experience it, and makes all times equal. But experienced time is the quality of  our life – measured time is simply its quantity. Happiness is timeless, we say. So whenever we experience life most intensively, it is important to put our watch away, or at least to stop looking at it. Life only becomes living when we break the dictatorship of the time that is measured by the clock.

It is probably our suppressed fear of death which makes us so greedy for life. Our individualized awareness tells us: ‘Death is the finish. You can’t hold on to anything, and you can’t take it with you.’ The unconscious fear of death shows itself in the stepped-up haste for living. In traditional societies, individuals feel themselves to be members of a larger whole: the family, life simply as such, or the cosmos. When the individual dies the wider context in which he or she participated lives on. But modern individualized consciousness knows only itself, relates everything to itself, and therefore believes that death is the end of everything.

It is only the person who lives slowly who gets more out of life. It is only the person who eats and drinks slowly who eats and drinks with enjoyment. Slow food – slow life! … It is only the suppressed fear of death that makes us so hurried. The experienced nearness of death, by contrast, teaches us to live every moment with full intensity as an eternal moment. Our senses are sharpened in an undreamed-of way. We see colours, hear sounds, taste and feel as never before. The experience of death which we permit ourselves makes us wise for life and wise in our dealings with time.

(Jürgen Moltmann, God for a Secular Society, Augsburg Fortress, 1999, excerpts from pp.88-91.)

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