The Right Time?
By: Ibtisaam Ahmed
The historian E.P. Thompson once wrote “In Madagascar time might be measured by a ‘rice-cooking’ (about half an hour) or ‘frying of a locust’ (a moment). The Cross River natives were reported as saying ‘the man died in less than the time in which maize is not yet completely roasted’ (less than fifteen minutes).”
Time is something that is invisible to us, yet we feel its presence and certainly witness the effects of it on our bodies and in the cycles and patterns of the natural world around us. However despite its invisible nature, for most of human history time was not something abstract. Rather, it was a real measure framed by the typical duration of events, like the cooking of rice or frying of a locust. The most common way of measuring time was of course by the sun, moon and seasons, but today, as one writer notes, “time is no longer a dimensional flow that we, along with the rest of nature, inhabit but rather a construct, a ‘thing’, that orders our lives and that we must obey”.
In this way, we can see that the way we structure our days and the way that we perceive time is a modern invention. We know that earlier civilizations had a vastly different relationship to time and a different pace characterized their lives. Yet, we hardly ever think about our constructed version of time and even if we did, could we make sense of what it means? While it is easy enough to make sense of the 24 time zones that emanate from Greenwich and a year of 12 months divided into 52 weeks — what exactly is a second?
Dean Buonomano writes in Your Brain is a Time Machine, “In 1967 an international consortium defined a second as: ‘the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of caesium 133 atom.’ The basic unit of time became permanently divorced from the observable dynamics of the planets and placed in the domain of the imperceptible behavior of a single element.”
Thus, we all march to the drumbeat of atomic time. Mechanized time means that we do not control our own time; it controls us and feeds our addiction to “being busy”. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, writes, “We’ve got to wean ourselves off this drug slowly. The best way to get value from your time is not to do more and more at light speed but to find the correct tempo, what musicians call the tempo giusto. When you approach every moment at the tempo giusto, your relationship with time is redefined. You become less obsessed with it and more in control of it.”
While it goes without saying that having coordinated time is certainly not a bad thing, it is the rigidity of our modern invented time that exerts a tremendous amount of control over us. Phrases like “time is money” and “don’t waste time” are so ingrained in our culture, that any ‘time’ which cannot be translated into something of economic value is considered worthless. The inevitable result is that we never slow down. Slowing down is a conscious choice, and one that is increasingly difficult to make, but is the only way to escape the all too familiar tyranny of time. The good news is that our current perception of time is not natural nor is it inevitable and if we so wish, we can alter it and find the tempo that works for us.