Time, written by Eva Hoffman is one of the books in the Big Ideas series in which writers are encouraged to think about our world afresh including politics, our passions and preoccupations, and our ways of seeing the world. They are meant to stir debate …… let’s see if it’s worked with myself, and then with YOU!
Time is a fact of our existence, unyielding in its forward march, tick tock, tick tock, never standing still, never moving backwards, always onwards and into the future. And yet, medical research has extended our life spans while computer science and digital innovation has shortened time into nanoseconds. We can travel across and between time zones at the speed of sound, and even exist in them simultaneously via our phones or computers. We work longer hours and yet suffer from “a lack of time”.
Eva Hoffman has examined all of these issues in her book organised into four chapters, Time and The Body, Time and The Mind, Time and Culture, Time in Our Time, each calling on aspects of psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, biology and history, so there is something in this book for everyone.
Time and The Body …
This opening chapter is focused on the physical effects of time, the relationship between time and our bodies. The two areas most discussed are sleep and longevity.
“Some of the causes of endemic sleep shortage have to do with the material conditions or requirements of our lives. [which are time related] Shift work, frequent long-distance travel, the availability of electric light and the incessant activity of cities all contribute to people getting less sleep. The work routines of upscale professionals often call for greatly extended or irregular hours.”“If we want to make sense of our days, if we want to fill them with something more purposeful than mere existence, if we wrestle with our own significance and insignificance, that is because we are conscious of our own impermanence. Myth, religion and philosophy have arisen from the need to reckon with our awareness of mortality. We have created fables of the world’s origins, of the afterlife and of eternity in order to imagine measures of time larger than our own and to counteract the fears of our own ending.”
Hoffman’s main point is that our physiological requirement for sleep as a “mode of recovery” is governed by time itself which is a function of our personal lifestyle, and that this lifestyle is governed by the interpretation of our own mortality spurring us on to fit more things in to our limited lifespan.
Time and Culture….
This was my favourite chapter, surprisingly ahead of Time and the Mind even though as a psychologist and with degrees in chemistry I understood the references to neuroscience. Culture is something we can all identify with, we do it regularly when we travel abroad, away from our own culture with its previously unnoticed influence from and relationship with time. How often have we landed in a foreign country and found the pace of life there different from our own? I’ve been convinced for a very long time that our holidays in the south of France or in Spain were as much about “the flow of time” as about sunshine and the wine! Then, there are our frequent trips to Kathmandu which I shall mention later. The chapter begins with these words from the author:
“In the initial stages, a child’s sense of time develops through its relations with intimate others ……….. adults who already embody within themselves certain patterns of temporality. Those patterns, in turn, reflect and are largely created by culture …… that system of visible customs and invisible assumptions, unwritten codes and subterranean values which structures, even if we are not overtly aware of it, our perceptions and views of the world. In Western cultures, for example, it is an unwritten but widely understood rule that we need to learn how to show up for an appointment at a mutually agreed time or to arrive for work at the appointed hour”
I guess we all intuitively know this, but it’s just the beginning as the rest of the chapter reveals for example, university students who show up for classes whenever they feel like it in Brazil, trains which arrive a day late in India and, in one instance of extreme slowdown, waiting three days for a long-distance phone connection in Nepal. Hoffman extensively describes the work of Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Attitude of the Algerian Peasant Toward Time’, written in the 1960s:
“Algerian peasant culture ….. has an attitude of submission and of nonchalant indifference to the passage of time which no one dreams of mastering, using up, or saving … All the acts of life are free from the limitations of the timetable, even sleep, even work, which ignores all obsession with productivity and yields. Haste is seen as a lack of decorum, combined with diabolical ambition … A whole art of passing time, or better, of taking one’s time, has been developed here.”
The chapter continues highlighting the seeming correlation of “this bucolic attitude towards time” with the peasants absolute lack of control over their static social circumstances. This is what I have constantly experienced in Nepal, both as a tourist in my wife’s homeland, and as the head of an education aid organisation. It is culture and custom that determine and shape individual behaviour because the economic and power levers are weak across the general population. Fatalism rather than futurism is the cultural thread throughout Nepalese society!
I needed two attempts to complete this book. I bought it a couple of years ago because I was interested in the Time-Culture connection and, having read that chapter I then put it down and moved on to something else. Maybe I was short of time! But having now read all of it, on reflection, it’s a very good book as a general read, whatever your time of life, your career or your culture. It will open your eyes to your own attitude to time and what is influencing your use of it. I wish I’d read it when I was much younger, but it is certainly influencing me today in making the most of whatever time I have left! I hope you’ll read it too.
Across all of these chapters, should you read the book yourselves, you might find it helpful to first familiarise yourself with the two Greek words for time; Chronos and Kairos, it will help you to understand the rationale and significance of each of Hoffman’s chapters. No spoilers from me, click to read my short post on Chronos & Kairos.