I am one of those unfortunate left-brained people with a calendar and clock inside my head. If you are like me, you are always conscious of the time, just as if two hands ticked unresting in your brain. You always know what time it is, to the nearest five or ten minutes.
This hyper-awareness of minutes and hours is a disease of recent centuries, and it affects some more than others. I believe it is a side-effect of the invention that allowed us to parse out our days into efficient little pieces. The clock, as Marshall McLuhan argues in Understanding Media, created our conception of time as “something that happens between two points” (135).
According to McLuhan, when the clock allowed us to visualize time as a line, subdivided into uniform units, our sense of time and reality changed. He argues that our Western idea of time as duration, our frustration with delay, and our consciousness of time as currency that can be spent, saved, or wasted, all result from our use of the clock.
But not all cultures have thought of time as a measurable space to be “filled in.” McLuhan argues that non-westernized cultures, like that of the Hopi Indians, do not conceive of time as a succession of minutes; for them, “It is what happens when the corn matures or a sheep grows up. . . . It is the natural process that takes place while living substance acts out its life drama” (137). Time is measured for each thing by its own experience and growth, and by rhythmic, seasonal cycles.
Our linear, Euclidean understanding of time parsed out into seconds and minutes makes us constantly aware of the ticking clock. But the movement of hands or the progression of digital numbers is not time but an abstracted, visual representation of time. And if we aren’t wary, it will abstract us out of a real experience of time in the world, where moments may hold varying depths of experience unmeasurable by ticking hands.
Clock-time can become a filmy screen, obscuring our vision. Out for a walk in the woods, I find I’m not paying attention to the green spring day around me; instead I am peering ahead, trying to see down the tunnel of my hyper-scheduled day.
Sometimes, as we skim along over minutes and days, we are surprised out of our time-awareness, and we experience what you might call “timeless moments.” These moments, which feel as if they are occurring outside of time, really only carry you out of your awareness of time, and therefore bring you into time—they let you “live in the moment.” You remember these moments because you were living them, not viewing them from the outside.
It might be a few minutes playing a piece of music (but it didn’t matter that they were minutes, and you didn’t know them as such); an hour of entrancement in a book; a few late-night hours of inspiration over a college term paper; an evening of good conversation. It might be a few days of vacation when you are no longer trying to multi-task your way through a day, and your body and mind find each other again. These are times when you dive into life or life draws you into itself, and time becomes something organic that you live.
Of course I don’t think we should banish clocks. There are myriad things it has allowed individuals and industries to accomplish. But we must beware of the temptation to go and sell ourselves as slaves to our own invention. Most of us, I imagine, would live better if we could free ourselves from the clock for even a small part of every day.
I think it would be an interesting exercise to try to evade clock-time for a little while; to clear the glass, or ignore it enough to see life behind it. This is the experiment: to take a day in which you have few engagements, and turn off or cover up your clocks. Fill the day with both leisure and work activities, if you like.
Then assess. Did you live well? Did you feel disoriented and cut adrift? Did you pay more attention? Did you find yourself multi-tasking less, and actually doing what you set out to do at any given moment?
I don’t know the answers, but I intend to do the exercise one day this week. I suspect the clock in my head will keep ticking away, but if I succeed in escaping it for a little while, I’ll let you know.
Here is one more thought about the value of the clock. Christ once said that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses. But for those of us nourished on the bread of the Protestant Work Ethic, it may be helpful to remember that neither does a person’s life consist in the number of things he “gets done” from day to day.