An ode to time, and the lack thereof
Flying back home for Thanksgiving Break is practically a religious experience. Of course, there is nothing divine about crying babies and invasive security checks, and while you might find yourself praying for your flight not to be canceled, airports are, by and large, devoid of spirituality. But it would not be a mistake to call an airport a church of sorts.
Airports are churches dedicated to worshipping time. Think about it — the endless worrying about time as you rush to the airport. The desperate craning of your neck to watch the inordinately slow progress of the security line. The rapturous ecstasy of knowing you’ve made it just in time, and that you won’t have to talk to a customer service representative from United yet again. The waiting areas at each terminal, like little pews from which you can contemplate the clock, hung high in the air right over the Arrivals and Departures screen, situated at the very center of the entire airport. There is something to be admired about the airport’s conquest of Time Itself. Yes, an airport is quite literally a place designed to throw metal birds into the air using explosives, but have you ever tried coordinating the schedules of more than five people before? Don’t tell me you aren’t impressed.
How does an airport demand such discipline? Well, if airports are churches to time, then it is no mistake that the clock is right in the middle. Clocks quantify time and crush it, tearing it up into perfectly even slices that compel us to measure our lives by them. It is in this way that the thousands of people who visit Lambert Airport every day — people of all kinds of diverse lives — converge to the same place at the same time on the same day, all anxiously checking their watches. Impose rules on time, and you impose rules on life itself. Is it no wonder, then, that even above Graham Chapel sits a clock which rings out every 15 minutes?
There is no disputing the usefulness of quantifying time — air travel wouldn’t work without it, after all. But, I can’t help but wonder about the unintended consequences of cutting time into regular, even parts. It turns time into a resource, a currency that we are always in danger of losing. We counsel each other that “time is money,” or complain that “those are two minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.” We thank each other for “giving us time.” Even when we “buy some time,” we do so knowing that it only temporarily forestalls the moment we finally “run out” of it.
College has attuned me to the inherent poverty of time. My deadlines are debts I must pay back, and the late penalties are brutal interest. Every schedule becomes an economic proposition, a test of how much time I have left to spare. And, with only four years of college, I must treat life economically. I can’t afford the time to question my major or take on another obligation. The budget was already fixed the moment I arrived on this campus.
This temporal anxiety is not limited to the university campus. Consider the way that we talk about climate change. Look at the language surrounding it. We’re almost out of time. Time is short. We’re running out of time. There is a sense that the generations of the past failed to pay their temporal dues, and now Generation Z is accepting the burden with interest. Climate change has become so dire that Gen Z college students are switching majors to climate-focused careers because “there’s no point” in doing anything else. Why are we so surprised, then, that anxiety is cresting among the college population? The debts of time are only getting larger as the standards get higher and the social problems get worse, and yet we are only ever left with four years. Every hour that we waste, every minute that we squander reminds us of the debt we have yet to pay.
You can see the ramifications of this looming time debt everywhere. WATERDROPd and Wash U Wash, on-campus businesses handling water delivery and laundry, are desperate ploys to eke out extra time. The recent climate protests on campus acknowledge the overwhelming weight of the climate crisis, even as Learning Center seminars promise to teach you how to manage your time. And what happens when we do finish all of our work, when we finally get a moment that hasn’t been sold away to another cause or event or responsibility? We call it “wasting our time” — or, to adopt the preferred language of Habif Health, “productively engaging in self-care.” This is the corrosive, recursive logic of time-as-currency made manifest. If time is only ever something we can lose, then any and every measure is justified in saving it. So, we spend time trying to save time — all so that we can spend more time. Relaxation becomes work, laundry becomes a business, and learning becomes a price.
Only by acknowledging this issue can we resist the encroaching influence of quantified time. The Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life recently hosted a panel on the nature of time, and the same themes of temporal anxiety emerged. And yet, as I sat in the audience, I was struck by the differences in how the panel participants interpreted time. To them, time did not simply have to be the ever-diminishing currency of our lives. It could mean so many different things: the cyclical nature of walking the paths set by our parents and mentors, the grand arc of history — even the feelings evoked by the passage of the seasons. When the topic of climate change arose, one speaker noted that it can feel as if we’re at the end of the world, caught between the vastness of history behind us and the uncertainty of the future ahead of us. However, they observed that history is littered with similar apocalyptic predictions, none of which came true. Why? Because this feeling that time is running out is as universal as it is incorrect. Every eschatology and every doomsday prediction has fallen flat because, whether we realize it or not, there will always be enough time.
I am terrified by the burden of time. I think we all are. I think we all feel, subtly but clearly, the resonances of our college journeys and our places in society. We really do only have so many years to find out who we are and to heal this planet. But urgency must not be the enemy of agency. If anything, prioritization is an expression of our deepest values. Paralyzing ourselves in a prison of ever-looming deadlines and always-insufficient productivity tools is the opposite of agency. So, how do we persist even in the face of our fears of “too late” and “time’s up?”
We must first recognize that our current paradigm of time is broken, as it shackles us to the cult of productivity. We must instead learn to treat time as a physical medium. Like space, we move through time, encountering opportunities for growth and development along the way. In doing so, we become more mindful of the present moment. This does not mean that we neglect our personal priorities or the issues plaguing society. Rather, it reminds us that even when we are faced with a crisis like climate change, we must always continue to hope. Hope is the audacity of timelessness, the embrace of agency in spite of deadlines and time limits because of the knowledge that, as long as we are, we can never run out of time.