Time, like money, is what we make of it. Unfortunately, it often takes the loud knock of calamity at our door to jar us into acknowledging this truth. It's amazing what an angina attack, followed by a cardiac catheterization, can do to reorganize your priorities.
Huddled with a close friend in the hospital waiting room during my husband's surgery to determine the extent of the blockage, I realized that under the guise of disaster, Eric and I had been handed a golden blessing. God had given us a chance to choose anew how we would use the remainder of our days. We could squander our time on overwork, meaningless detail and mind-numbing pastimes; or we could spend our time with thought, grace and gratitude and savor the riches it brings.
Time Comes at a Cost
Of course spending time wisely is easier said than done. When you're up to your eyebrows in bills, careers, kids, church, friends, clutter and a cat with allergies, stopping to smell the roses may mean you'll only notice they need pruning. And who wants to add another item to their "to-do" list?
I'm increasingly convinced, however, that our perceived shortage of time may be largely of our own making. We talk incessantly about our lack of free time. Even after Eric's heart scare, he and I are right in there adding to the chaos of life. Just this past weekend, for example, I was off to Kentucky to promote my new book, while he worked a trade show in Indianapolis and our daughter stayed with a family friend.
"We don't have enough time!" we wailed to each other on the phone, knowing full well that if that excuse got any flimsier it would unravel faster than a cheap suit. The truth is, we're rich in time. What we sometimes lack is the backbone to take responsibility for how we choose to spend it.
According to a poll undertaken by the Whirlpool Corporation, 61 percent of us say we would gladly trade money for more free time. Yet a different study, conducted by the Family and Work Institute, shows that what we say and what we do are two entirely different things. In 1991 the institute studied 188 companies and found that, though most of them had liberal policies regarding work schedules, less than five percent of their employees opted for part-time work and less than ten percent took advantage of flextime.
It doesn't help either that many of us are blurring the line between our professional and private lives and creating what sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls "the third shift." In her book The Time Bind (Metropolitan), Hochschild asserts that instead of coming home to relax and rejuvenate at the end of the workday, we're escaping to the office and the assembly line to get away from the stress of household chores, childcare and the demands of relationships.
Home makes us feel like unappreciated drudges, while work gives us a buzz. Besides the money and the freedom from constant emotional demands, work provides the satisfaction of a job well done, an outlet for creativity, breezy low-demand camaraderie and intellectual stimulation—not to mention the strong sense of belonging that many corporations have worked overtime to instill. Knowing that an employee who feels valued will go the extra mile for the company, corporate America has sought to simulate in the workplace the warm fuzzies of a close family.
Even advertisers are taking advantage of this phenomenon. A popular coffee commercial asks, "You know that place you go from nine to five?" and then the announcer adds, "That's your easy job."
Most of us who secretly feel that work is less complicated and more fulfilling than home may not even be aware of it. And if we are, chances are we try to ignore the fact. After all, it doesn't seem Christian to say that we relish being at work so we can avoid communicating with our spouse and children!
All this dedication to work may be keeping us financially afloat, and it may even be providing us with a piece of "the good life." But as Hochschild warns, both our slavish dedication to our jobs and our material advantages come at a high cost. The less time we spend at home, truly attending to the needs of our families, the messier our home life gets. The same hours can't be devoted both to the workplace and accomplishing the work of homelife. Still, we give our best to our careers while complaining that we don't have enough time with our families.
Eric and I would still be charging through life like a turbo-powered race car, living for work, if it hadn't been for the big scare we had earlier in the year. We now make the time to do something together that we both love—browsing through the new acquisitions at the library. Just a few nights ago, while browsing, we noticed a woman in a business suit anxiously watching the clock. The shrill ring of her cell phone broke the silence. "Sorry," she mumbled, as she dug through her purse. "Work." Eric and I exchanged glances that said, "We're glad that's not us anymore."
When it comes to regaining control of our time, few of us can chuck our jobs and live off the land. And most of us wouldn't want to.
"All this talk about escaping to work makes me uncomfortable," admits my friend Susan, who works full-time as a corporate trainer. "The truth is I do sometimes use work as an antidote to pain. When the kids or Bob are giving me grief, it's easier to be at work. Sometimes I feel like I've discovered what men have known since the dawn of time."
Her husband, Bob, a national sales manager for a mid-sized company, nods in agreement. "For generations it's been socially acceptable for men to duck out," he says. "As long as we provided for our families we were pretty much off the hook." However, these days, the onus is on both husband and wife to share the load on the homefront.
Bob admits that he and Susan often "buy time" by hiring out jobs they don't like—the yardwork, the housecleaning. They eat take-out four nights a week and send their son to a tutor. "Maybe what we're doing," Bob admits, "is buying our way out of the family time we say we crave."
Even the use of leisure time isn't always a simple proposition. "All my life I dreamed of having a boat," Bob says. The rub is that he's finding it costs more to maintain than he realized, and to make the most of his investment he feels like the family must get to the lake every weekend.
"Even our pleasure is time driven," he notes. "We work like demons to buy ourselves leisure and rarely have a genuinely relaxed moment."
Diane and Greg, who live next door to Bob and Susan, feel much the same way. They speak pensively about needs and wants and how easy it is to confuse the two.
"So many of our bills are self-created," Greg says. "My brother and his wife live on $25,000 a year and their house is fully paid off. Last month they bought a new car and paid cash. We make three times as much and never have a free dime."
Diane, however, points out that her brother-in-law and his wife might spend a lot of time together, but they also have a huge garden and lots of animals. "Take about stuff owning you!" she adds. "I'd just like to find a way to enjoy life without it being almost a job in itself."
The pursuit of pleasure has indeed become a job in itself, Hochschild writes. She maintains that free time isn't really free at all. Because it requires so much discipline, persistence and patience, it not only resembles work, but it raises our stress level to new heights. Even when we do grab an afternoon at the lake, chances are we've either brought work along or we're preoccupied with what needs to be done when we get back. We've become so good at performing two or more tasks at once (which has spawned the term "time stacking"), we've forgotten how to allow pauses to reflect on what has happened in our lives and to anticipate what is yet to come.
Radical Time Management
While time-management experts emphasize accomplishing more tasks in less time, author Claire Cloninger makes the radical assertion that we need to take more time to do fewer tasks. In A Place Called Simplicity (Harvest House), she says that it's the small daily joys—not scratched-out tasks on our "to-do" lists—that add meaning, texture and richness to life.
At the end of our short sojourn on Earth, what will we treasure—the corporate report we compiled during the family camping trip, or the golden autumn day spent raking leaves with the kids and then jumping in the pile together? Will we look back and see that our days were filled with obsessive work hours or anxiety about money? Or will our hearts soar with memories of gathering around the fireplace telling stories or making a real connection with a teenager?
Cloninger writes about two kinds of time—chronos, or clock time, and kairos, which she calls "God time." Most of us are on a first-name basis with chronos—those hours that seem to drag and we drag ourselves through. Chronos time is the discomfort of an hour in the dentist chair, the drudgery of a Saturday afternoon spent cleaning out the garage and the boredom of one more interminable meeting. Kairos time, by contrast, is infused with enthusiasm, a word that comes from the Greek en and theos, which literally means "filled with God." Kairos time is when we stop what we are doing, suddenly aware that we've been surprised by joy.
Eric and I still have a long way to go. But if we've learned anything from Eric's health crisis, it's this. To get more kairos time in our lives, we have to make the conscious choice to slow down and allow it to catch up with us. We also have to temporarily let go of the never-ending "to-do" list, stop allowing work to be a barrier between us and the people we love, and commit to being together no matter how loudly the world clamors for our attention. If that means we sometimes let the dust bunnies and paperwork multiply, well, they'll still be there when we get back.
Eileen Silva Kindig is a freelance writer who lives in Medina, Ohio.
© 1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.