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The Care Of Time

By Allan Eastman

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External Time

Child learns the time on two clocks

Children learn from a very early age the concept of the clock.

©iStockphoto.com/Grzegorz Kula

What we learn about Objective Time and how we learn is very culturally based and always has been. It is no surprise that the first God in ancient Greek mythology is Chronos - the God of Time - who in turn creates everything else. In the older and more traditional cultures, children learn through their family’s environment and activities the meanings and needs of the daily and seasonal requirements of life.

We’ve discussed in earlier editions of All The Time In The Worldhow the linking up of the widespread appearance of public mechanical clocks with the rise of capitalist commerce created an ever increasing importance of timekeeping as part of how our civilizations function. Time became broken down into smaller and smaller units and in cultural terms, essentially became a unit of currency.

A child’s learning about Time still begins in the traditional manner even in our modern societies. Parents gradually teach their baby to postpone the fulfilment of its immediate desires and to start to follow a more defined schedule – when to be fed, when to excrete, when to sleep and so on. But then society very quickly takes over the process.

Among the first things taught to the tiny scholars of kindergarten or early grade school - along with numbers and the alphabet - is the concept of the clock. We are programmed from the very beginning to function according to our widely accepted notion of what Time is – a durational flow that is defined by seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years. And from the start, children’s lives are scheduled as well. School begins and ends at set times. Within those times, there are definite appointed times for various activities – first finger painting and spelling and play and nap times but very soon, arithmetic, science, history and all the other specific subjects of the curriculum.

At a certain point, each individual girl or boy recognizes their own existence within the parameters of this External Time structure and comes to understand that there is not only the present - which is all they initially perceive as small children - but also a past and a future. They become part of the accepted clockwork of existence that characterizes modern life.

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And most things in their life follow this similar pattern of scheduling. The school bus arrives at a precise time, the lunch bell rings at the same moment each day, there is usually a fixed time to sit down with the rest of the family for supper. A certain amount of Time must be set aside for homework, for hygiene, for a favorite TV show. Outside activities adhere to this rigid scheduling as well – hockey practice, dance class, sports events, movie times all begin at a specific determined moment. Each child is conditioned to be punctual in order to be able to do the things they want to do or must do.

By the time they become adults, most men and women are in essence, ensnared by External Time. Some would say enslaved, although it is certainly more benign than what we mean by slavery, historically. In every kind of society, it becomes necessary to trade a significant portion of the time of one’s life to earn the means of subsistence and survival. This runs the gamut from the daily tending of rice paddies to ensure a store of food over the winter season to the 9 to 5 shift at XYZ Corporation which results in a paycheck that then pays for the food and shelter that keeps us alive.

Thus, the main uses of External Time in people’s life are driven by economic imperatives and it may become more tightly scheduled depending on the complexity of the society you live in. People must work for a significant portion of their life in order to survive and to work, we must abide by the strictures of Objective Time. We must put in the required hours at our jobs and our advancement and success is often allied to our efficiency in the uses of Time. If we can accomplish more in the same period than our competitors, we will usually be economically rewarded. If we are late or lax with our work time, we will usually be fired.

Some call all this The Tyranny of Time. We move forward on the treadmill of a regularized schedule for decades until we reach the designated age of retirement, then we are put out to pasture to allow room for fresh blood to energize the system. We’ve talked about how the accelerating pace and fragmentation during this process in modern societies is causing increasing alienation and neurosis among people seemingly caught in the hamster’s wheel.

And sooner or later, Objective Time plays its cruelest trick – our bodies eventually wither, break down and finally give out. At least, this is something that isn’t so rigorously scheduled for each individual although those who draw up the insurance actuarial tables would give you an argument on that.

Utopian theories of Society generally envision a more humane system of life. People would not be chained to the time clocks of commerce but would do self fulfilling work at their own pace and in return, receive what they need to live a decent life. But no humans have even come close to setting up such a society, or certainly not in any system larger than a small tribal situation in certain so called primitive cultures.

It seems that we are stuck with the system we’ve got for the foreseeable future so we will have to continue to try to master the uses of External Objective Time and make the best of our own individual situations within it. Some enlightened companies, like Google, are making attempts to break up the more oppressive modes of the regular work schedule in an effort to inspire more creative thought and productivity from their employees. They are trying things like more flexible work scheduling, nap periods, working from home and more enriching and inspiring work environments. That particular company is doing pretty well at this point so perhaps some other employers will make similar efforts to adjust the rigidity of the common work experience.

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