Time should not be possessed

We as a culture choose to spend our time in a hurry, but this is not the only way to live.

by Diana Fu

Can I have the time?” Wait. Before you scrunch up your sleeves to look at the hands of your watch, think for a minute about the word “have.” To “have time,” in a sense, means to possess it.

In the United States, we are obsessed with owning time, just as we own a car, a dog, stocks and maybe even Social Security. But possessing also requires controlling. So, we try to manage time, cutting it up into little pieces and giving a bit to friends, homework, work, family and entertainment. This process is stressful.

So what’s the alternative? Maybe we should treat time as a natural flow of moments rather than as a material to be had. Just put one foot outside of the United States, and you can experience so many different conceptions of time.

This last week, I flew back to the United States from China and encountered “time shock.” In the United States, where everything runs by the minute, you’re forced to place your life on a grid and jump from one vertex to the next. After all, straight lines are efficient.

But efficiency comes at a price. Americans, for the most part, lead extremely stressful lives. And needless to say, stress can lead to all sorts of emotional and physical problems. It also reduces human interaction to a rather mechanical level of communicating for the sake of accomplishing a certain goal.

Not so in other places. When a village person in Yunnan, China, tells you she’ll

be right with you, you know it means in a few hours or so. And when you meet,

you might chat around a fire and sip wine. Even at my workplace in Beijing, people

drift in midmorning, take a siesta after lunch and sit you down for tea before handing

you a project. Sure, it might not be as efficient as a 9-5 job with a half-hour lunch break in between, but I think it’s much healthier.

I’ve spoken to a lot of Americans abroad who get agitated with the lack of planning and efficiency in other cultures. Why won’t the trains run on time? Why can’t people plan ahead when they have meetings? Why do you have to wait so long to catch a bus in Mexico?

Every time I hear those complaints, I want to turn the question around and ask, “Why are Americans so obsessed with controlling time? Don’t you see that the pace of life we lead in the United States might be directly related to the high number of people who have emotional and physical breakdowns every day?”

Perhaps if we didn’t care so much about leading the most efficient lifestyle possible, we wouldn’t have to take vacations on remote tropical islands.

Perhaps I’m being a hypocrite. Even realizing these problems, it’s hard for me to escape when I’m placed in a fast-paced society. You just have to keep up or you drop behind. Something needs to change systemically.

To begin, maybe our education system can teach children how to observe and enjoy the things they are doing in the moment rather than teaching them how to manage their time efficiently. Childhood is probably the only period of our lives when we have the liberty of not caring about time.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected]