This is now / 230

Schon! - - Contents - Words / Emma Grace Bai­ley Pho­to­graph / Michael Dwornik

The con­cept of time as we know it to­day was only in­vented 6,000 years ago. Be­fore that, the strict way in which a day, a month, a year is bro­ken up into hours, min­utes and sec­onds didn’t ex­ist. Peo­ple just lived their lives ac­cord­ing to their own sched­ule, in much the same way that an­i­mals still do to this day. There were no dead­lines, no due dates and no fi­nal no­tices. Lunch wasn’t eaten at 12 and an alarm didn’t pierce the si­lence ev­ery morn­ing with its shrill, un­wel­come voice. To­day, how­ever, time rules our lives, in­stills fear and sets un­nat­u­ral bound­aries. With­out it, we would be lost.

For many, hav­ing hours upon hours of free time is a pure, and of­ten elu­sive, luxury. The thought that there is noth­ing that you have to do, achieve, re­ply to, watch or even at­tend is a free­dom rarely ex­pe­ri­enced in our hec­tic, over-sched­uled lives. And there’s a rea­son why we crave th­ese mo­ments of time­less utopia. Time is un­nat­u­ral.

The stress im­posed on us as we try to live our lives to the tick­ing of a mea­sured clock is a bur­den we were not meant to en­dure and as the world be­comes smaller, our lives busier and the ex­pec­ta­tions put on our shoul­ders grow larger, the re­stric­tive na­ture of a hand pass­ing a hand is caus­ing more has­sle than the re­lief of an or­gan­ised cal­en­dar is worth.

A quick chat with Dan Zakay, PhD, who spe­cialises in the study of psy­cho­log­i­cal time, throws light on the sub­ject. “Living by the clock im­poses time pres­sure, psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure and anx­i­ety,” he says. “When you al­ways have to do some­thing, your time sched­ule ends up dic­tat­ing your life, and it was once be­lieved that those who are time ur­gent are more likely to suf­fer from a heart attack.”

How­ever, there are pock­ets of the earth where the rigid­ity of time is seen more as a sug­ges­tion rather than the scrupu­lous set of rules we in the West have come to re­gard it as. In Brazil, for ex­am­ple, say­ing you’ll meet some­one at five could equate to any time be­tween five, mid­night or not at all, and rather than be­ing per­ceived as rude – imag­ine if a friend never both­ered turn­ing up to a din­ner date here in Lon­don… – it is nor­mal, ac­cepted and thus stress-free. Cer­tain African com­mu­ni­ties have a sim­i­lar mind­set, be­liev­ing that un­nec­es­sary stress is caused by stop­ping the flow of one ac­tiv­ity to at­tend to the al­lot­ted time of an­other, and so they don’t… and the world keeps turn­ing as nor­mal.

The benefits of this life­style are clear and a study car­ried out by the Pan Amer­i­can Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion in 2011 found that the blood pres­sure of those in Brazil is con­sid­er­ably lower than those in the United States, where punc­tu­al­ity is the rit­ual of the masses. More­over, an ex­per­i­ment car­ried out at the Uni­ver­sity of South Australia in 2010 found that men who were com­pletely de­prived of any time telling de­vices (smart­phone, com­puter, alarm and mi­crowave in­cluded), slept through­out the night, av­er­ag­ing a to­tal of eight hours sleep each – a rare feat in our in­som­nia-rid­den lives where know­ing how long we have un­til morn­ing be­comes ad­dic­tive and de­struc­tive.

Underpinning our ap­par­ent ob­ses­sion with clocks, how­ever, is the more preva­lent is­sue of our in­abil­ity to let go and live in the mo­ment, choos­ing in­stead to plan ev­ery step and ev­ery cor­ner of our lives. Rather than fol­low­ing the nat­u­ral en­ergy within us, we look to the ex­ter­nal rigid­ity of a clock to de­ter­mine our fate and live in a con­stant state of un­rest. One group of peo­ple that doesn’t have this prob­lem is the Pi­rahã tribe of the Ama­zon, whose unique and mostly un­fath­omable lan­guage doesn’t al­low for time or num­bers, mean­ing its mem­bers ex­ist only in the here and now and not in ei­ther past or fu­ture tense. “By ig­nor­ing time,” Zakay muses, “one might live ac­cord­ing to one’s own dreams and tempo, com­pletely un­re­lated to the de­mands of so­ci­ety and re­al­ity.” Although un­nat­u­ral to us, it’s the most nat­u­ral thing our body could do.

In the long run, es­chew­ing time al­to­gether isn’t re­ally a choice ex­cept on those few glo­ri­ous days when you re­ally don’t have any­thing to do and can let the clocks stop, ditch the watch and live as you want. That might mean sleep­ing in the mid­dle of the day, but who cares? With­out time you have the luxury to de­sign your own rules.

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