Freedom from time, and the compulsion to get things done

We all fall into the trap of what Giambattisa Vico called ‘the conceit of scholars,’ which is the false belief that our understanding of the world is as old as the world itself.

Very few of us Moderns recognize that those foundational concepts that drive us in our day to day lives — concepts like ‘time’ and ‘progress’ — are inventions of the Eighteenth century that, according to Reinhardt Koselleck, only become possible as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

And very few Moderns recognized how prototypically ‘male’ our concept of time is, as something that we work to master, through prediction and control, in order for us to achieve greatness. Thinking of time in this way is only possible if we can ignore the cyclical, and non-progressive (even Sisyphean) nature of actual day to day life — like cleaning the house and caring for others. The kind of ‘household management’ that Aristotle thought best for women, children, and slaves.

Our Modern experience of time is as something that is divisible into tidy increments, and as something that demands progress. Our experience of time is neither natural nor necessary, and yet it confronts us as if it were. As WI Thomas famously observed, “that which is perceived as real will be real in its consequences.”

Living in a city reinforces the Modern conception of time. Living on a farm frustrates it.

On a farm, you are never ‘done.’ You never get to check anything off your list. The next task is rarely predictable. The pasture I cut yesterday seems like it already needs to get cut today. The ATV that I rely on every day is unusable until I change out the water pump. Horses seem to take great pleasure in breaking fence boards. One of these days I need to figure out how to safely remove poison ivy.

Every day ends. But you are never ‘done.’

I’m grateful that my wife manages the dinosaurs (aka ‘horses’) because they are even more needy and unpredictable in their care from day to day as the property.

Taking a mind formed by a modern sense of time and progress and putting it on a farm is frustrating. Seen through a Modern lens, the farm can seem like it is always getting in the way.

But from another perspective, part of the frustration comes from the fact that the farm serves as a constant reminder of the artificiality of the conceptions of time and progress that otherwise rule modern life.

A recognition that how we think about time is neither natural nor necessary helps us to rethink the day to day. Instead of thinking about the dishes, the dog, the farm as inconvenient disruptions to what would otherwise be predictable and productive, we can now view the Modern demands of work as exceptions to what is otherwise the rule.

We can’t ignore the demands of time, oh course, since our relationships with others depend on it. And we can’t ignore the need to ‘get things done’ and to constantly ‘improve‘ because our employment probably requires this of us. But we don’t need to be ruled by these demands. We shouldn’t feel like failure to show up for a meeting on time or to meet a deadline represents a kind of existential threat…as if we are failing as human beings.

The proper place of time management is as something that supports human relationships. We agree that it’s important in certain contexts. Time and progress have their time and place. And it is important to honor our obligations as members of a shared and social world. But there is also freedom in recognizing that our obligations are to others and not to time itself.

We must resign ourselves to living in life as it is, with all its repetitive cycles and unpredictability. Only then can we truly flourish in more structured work environments. Because only then can we be liberated from the sense of anxiety that results when the messiness of real life threatens the artifice of Modern existence.

5 thoughts on “Freedom from time, and the compulsion to get things done

  1. Great post, Timothy! This reminds me of the Heideggarian approach to time which splits time into successive increments. The challenge with this approach is that it raises the question of what is it that binds the successive moments together into an unending flow. And, even more so, how can humans enter that flow without inevitably getting caught up into the fragmentation of time that is so bound up with our need to dominate and control? It seems the solution lies in a fundamental shift in perception, but part of that shift also involves seeing the repetitive and cyclical nature of time as being inherently meaningful. Yet when we’re oriented toward dominating and controlling the outer environment, this kind of meaningfulness is itself problematic. Only when we learn to attend to our inner dynamics can the incessant repetition take on a different meaning, because then we’re experiencing shifts within ourselves, precisely due to the cyclical nature of our outer environment. Every time I clean the house, or care for another person is different because I am a different person each time I am doing it. It seems to me this attention to the inner person is a large part of what has been lost since the enlightenment, and perhaps this is why we see so much of modern life as futile. Thoughts?

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    1. Glad you like it, Simon! I’m thinking a lot about similarities between Buddhism and Phenomenology

      (admittedly, I don’t know much about Buddhism…and I’ve forgotten a lot about Phenomenology. Makes me think of my favorite line from Bruce Cockburn (who you introduced me to): “I woke up thinking about Turkish drummers. It didn’t last long. I don’t know much about Turkish drummers.”)

      I do think that perception is key. Freeing oneself from any kind of stake in reality per se — because we don’t really have direct access — and instead shifting our attention to our experiences. An interesting flattening takes place as a result, where my experience of the world outside of myself and my experience of my inner life begin to stand on equal footing. When this happens, one’s task is no longer about reconciling themselves to the world, but about reconciling their experiences to each other in a way that mitigates anxiety.

      Maybe?

      In any given epoch, I think we run the risk of reifying our ideas as if they were of some higher order. Remember reading Berger and Luckmann?

      Somehow I want to think that the secret to happiness was involves some combination of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, Phenomenology (including pieces of Heidegger, who I think was grappling with the same issues as I and so many others), and Mindfulness.

      (As far as time is concerned, I kind of like the notion of suspending belief about the nature of time per se, while also thinking of the self as that which stitches. I am reading Buddhist thinkers refer to the ‘self’ as a ‘mind stream.’ I like that.

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  2. Thanks for this response, Timothy. I’m not surprised to learn you’re exploring Buddhism, since some of these questions regarding time and experience are central to Buddhist thought. I approach these questions through the framework of Contemplative or Wisdom Christianity, which, starting in the twentieth century has had some very in-depth engagements with various strands of Buddhist and Hindu thought. So, if you’re interested in exploring this territory, I’d encourage you to become religiously mulitlingual, if that’s even possible.

    As I’ve grappled with some of these questions, I’ve come to realize that it’s impossible to think them through without some serious reflection on ontology/metaphysics. It’s also impossible to think them through without also integrating a robust experiential component. I write this because, using the question of time as an example, there is some question whether time as we know it is real or not. Yes, at a phenomenological level, we do experience time. But, it’s also possible to state we experience time very differently depending on the situations in which we find ourselves and what we’re experiencing in those situations. So this raises questions of how do we understand the intertwining of ontology with phenomenology. Do we follow phenomenology to its idealist extremes? Or do we have a more open-ended approach, such as that of speculative realism or Object Oriented Ontology? Regardless, if we accept the mutability of time, at least within the phenomenological or experiential domains, this then raises the question of whether there are any domains that are truly immutible. Both Buddhist and Christian thought would claim there are, but would name them somewhat differently. However, I would argue quite strongly that we cannot truly perceive these immutible domains purely through the tools of reason or rationality. Rather, to truly encounter them, they must be approached through contemplative or meditative experience. This is why meditative practice is so central to Buddhist thought, and, I would argue, Christian theology in the truest sense of the word.

    So, to come back to the question that stemmed this conversation, you’re absolutely correct to state that perception is the key to questions of time. But, to drive this observation further, it might be stated that perception is the bridge between the inner and the outer. Both Buddhist and Christian thought would state that once we have achieved truth in our perception then we have understood the truth about reality. From a western philosophical perspective this would inevitably get us tangled up in questions regarding how to understand the relationship between ontology and epistemology. Yet from these religious perspectives some argue quite convincingly that ontology is epistemology, and vice versa. To reach this understanding, however, can only be achieved within the context of a robust meditative or contemplative practice. Put another way–if you change yourself, you change your reality. For my part, I think that’s the most hopeful discovery humanity has ever made. If only more people could embrace and live into it.

    I’m curious to read your response.

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    1. The parts of Buddhist thought that start to sound like metaphysics — that begin to make strong assertions about the nature of the soul, etc — are kind of uninteresting to me, because they start to come into conflict with style epistemological bits that I feel are truly freeing.

      The parts of Buddhism that I like are those practices and frameworks that complement the Pyrrhonian Skepticism that seems to have emerged as a result of Pyrrho’s early encounters with early Buddhism, and that ends up being re-articulated more fully by Hume.

      Skepticism is the fulfillment of Stoicism. The Stoics believed in eliminating the desire for things over which we have no control. And the desire to know something about the world AS IT IS is one of those things.

      It’s possible that, rather than something that we have to explore and come to some conclusions about in order to understand ourselves and our place in the world, metaphysics is actually an impediment. Something that was useful, perhaps, in simpler times, but that is actually an imposing time that we need to learn to give up to be truly happy?

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      1. Thanks for this response, Timothy. It certainly clarifies where you’re coming from. There are a number of points I could make in response to this reply, in addition to your blog post this morning, but I think I’ll put things this way:

        When I think of the role metaphysics has played in my own life, I think I’ve entered into this domain mainly as a result of my own curiosity. My desire isn’t to solve all the mysteries of the universe. Rather my desire is to understand something about my own experience that has piqued my curiosity. So I read a bit (a lot, actually) and I consistently re-engage my experience to test whether the things I’ve been reading about can actually be verified in my own life. So, in this sense, there is a deeply empirical aspect to my approach this domain.

        However, this does not mean I hold on to what I’ve discovered categorically, understanding it to capture or express the sum total of reality. Rather, my views are held provisionally, always with the understanding that further experiences can either confirm or deny my current perspectives on the nature of reality. My perspectives are therefore held loosely, entirely contingent on what I have experienced that has brought me to this point, and also entirely contingent on how I am experiencing myself at any given time.

        So, I completely agree with what you said in a previous response about the dangers of reification. The absolute worst thing we can do is reify our understandings of reality, perceiving them to be absolutely true in all times and in all circumstances. Such reifications deny the contingent nature of all physical realities, and therefore must be rejected.

        Where Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices invite us, however, is into experiential encounters with realities beyond conceptual or philosophical metaphysics. If such experiences are considered and explored intentionally and systematically, they have the potential to completely overhaul any prior metaphysical assumptions we might have held, precisely because they relativize and dissolve any concepts we might have otherwise held, demonstrating them to be ultimately illusory.

        This then raises the question of how precisely do we return to daily life and engage it based on the experiences we’ve had? Happiness may be one of the side effects, but this only is the case because the self is transformed in ways that language will never be able to capture. So, in accordance with one of your earlier posts, happiness becomes intrinsic because the self is no longer the self it was previously. But, in my experience, this kind of transformation is only possible through the abandonment of concepts, reified or not, in the context of meditative or contemplative practice. However, this does not mean we abandon reflection on the practice and its effects on us and others in the real world. From my perspective there is an ethical responsibility to translate the wisdom of the practice into terms that can be appropriated by others, precisely due to its liberating and transforming potential. There is a metaphysical component to this, as there is with any empirical endeavour, but this metaphysical component must always, always, resist the temtation to reify itself. Even within the Christian tradition there is as strong commitment to these principles, but probably not in many of its popular contemporary and conservative Protestant expressions.

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