Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fast and Furious: A reflection on time

Has any period in history felt that it has less time than ours?  That is one of the many significant questions raised in an article by the editors of the journal n+1. It's called "Too Fast, Too Furious."

The great paradox of the modern age (the past 200 years or so) is that, with the development of technology, time is felt as passing more and more quickly. This is what the German theorist Hartmut Rosa calls an "acceleration society."  Why do labor-saving devices that give us more free time also bring feelings of stress and lack of time?

The answer seems obvious: "The number of things you might be able to do becomes impossibly large and expands every day with implacable speed," Rosa says. The more "free" time we have, the more busy and enslaved to time we become. No wonder Thoreau remains enduringly popular.

At no time of year, when consumerism is in high gear, does this feeling tend of being overwhelmed by time become more apparent than the present holiday season, which involves doing innumerable things. One important point missing from the n+1 article is our ability to resist doing more things, by choosing to slow down, by not filling up leisure time with more and more apps, tweets, and other devices and gadgets and finding a space for silence.

In other words, it is certainly possible to be, as the article suggests, overly busy and stressed doing many things and feeling, like Tantalus, never satisfied, either intellectually or emotionally. But is it inevitable that we are trapped in this way?

Rosa speaks of a "frenetic standstill" in which "an eternal, unchanging sameness afflicts the age." Yet, with a minimum of imagination and training, one can enter the timeless present, which does not mean bleak affliction (as Rosa suggests) but a sense of constant presence beyond the rush of time. Meditation, whether Christian, Buddhist, or other, offers a way out of the dilemma Rosa sees as trapping us in an endless cycle of busyness.

Finding time for ourselves, for meditation and reflection, even for quiet reading, requires hard choices (turn off the media, avoid the telephone for a few hours) but seems essential for our inner life.  We can find moments of transcendent stillness and peace in which we are connected to the timeless reality of God.

The advice of Teilhard de Chardin is relevant: allow God "the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete."  Begin, that is, with the recognition that all life on earth is incomplete, that we are restless creatures, and that progress is any area take a very long time. But the goal is ultimately reached, if we "trust in the slow work of God."

There is, in the end, enough time. And if we make time for the timeless presence of God within us, we can, however briefly, step outside the mad rush of time and find the peace we all seek. That, at least, is my hope at this time of Christmas.

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