Time Well Spent

St. Augustine said that he knew perfectly well what time is…just so long as no one asked him what it was. I think we are much like Augustine. Until we have to think about it or give some kind of definition, we know what time is. But how to articulate what we seem to understand leaves us at a loss.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Time is something of a mystery. How is it that moments go by? How is it that a moment that is not yet becomes present before slipping into being no more? Physicists and philosophers explain it in different ways. My own library has a stack of books from bright minds on the subject from various disciplines, mostly philosophy and science. As helpful and often interesting as such explanations are, none of them fully scratch that itch of understanding the mystery of time.

Whatever time is, we all know that we experience it. We all understand a few simple truths. We know we cannot go back in time and change anything that has happened. We can only learn from it so that our present behavior might be influenced for the better. We also know that we cannot step ahead into the future to cause a desired outcome. The only effect we can have on the future is what we do today—in the present.

What is apparent is the only time we have is each passing moment, the moment as it passes. All we have is the fleeting present. So what the hell do we do with it?

We talk about spending time. To spend conjures the financial metaphor. Just as we should spend our money wisely, we should likewise be wise with the allocation of our time. We speak of saving money and of saving time. Just like money, time can be wasted, or it can be well spent and result in something worthwhile and lasting. Also, like money, we cannot spend what is already spent or what we do not yet have. The only time available to spend is the present time.

What is time well spent? I offer here no exhaustive list, nor do I presume what is time well spent for me is time well spent for you. Whatever time well spent is for any of us, I think there are some common criteria by which to measure. The philosophical life is the examined life. That is, I must examine my choices to determine whether they lead to living well. What are some of these questions?

Do the ways in which I choose to spend or pass my time make me a better person? Do I grow or do my choices stunt my growth as a human being? Is my community enriched in any way by how I spend my time? Do I learn about the world around me or become isolated and alienated from it? What should I spend more time doing and less time doing? While each of us must figure out our own specifics, here are a few things that I think are worthwhile to guide us.

More time listening, less time speaking.

We all want to be heard. It is human to want that. Speaking and having our voice heard is fundamental to our well-being. We all want “voice recognition.” Not the kind on devices such as our phones, but the recognition that we are valuable and possess dignity. Very few things are an offense to our sense of value and dignity more than not being heard or, worse, silenced. It should be evident that listening is the counterpart of speaking. If you are speaking but I am not listening to you, then the purpose of your speaking remains unfulfilled. We all know this in our experience. “Why will you not listen to me?” “You are not hearing what I am saying?” My desire to have my voice heard must be balanced by my commitment to listening.

I am convinced that this is as true today as it has ever been. From cable news to talk radio to daytime talk shows to Facebook and Twitter feeds, everyone has something to say. “Everyone knows everything and no one’s ever wrong” (Show Don’t Tell, Neil Peart). There is a lot of speaking going on. It is maddening noise to a great extent. But everyday life in our encounters with others is not the same place as these platforms. We must learn to spend a good deal of our time listening and less of it speaking.

In his master work, Totality and Infinity, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the “face to face” encounter with the Other. Who is this “Other”? The Other here is anyone (or thing) that is not “I.” Levinas says that we should consider the Other in her or his “infinity,” that is, a fathomless mystery to which we should be open. According to Levinas, the face-to-face relation “…involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which is itself produced by the face of the other….” Besides just being the courteous thing to do, spending more time listening to the Other and less time speaking can open us to learning things we did not know, gaining perspectives that we did not have, becoming more understanding of others, and enlarging our own selves, dwelling in a bigger world than the small one we thought was already everything. It is good to learn things we did not know and to learn a few things about ourselves that perhaps we did not want to know but are the better for it. Listening more and speaking less is time well spent.

More time learning, less time judging

This one goes hand in hand with the last one. It should go without saying (yet everything that we say should go without saying is something we feel we should say anyway), but the notion of spending more time learning and less time judging does not mean that we should never judge. Making judgments is an inescapable part of life and even necessary. We cannot not judge. We should just make sure we make good judgments. I propose here that the more we learn, the better equipped we are to judge well. So it makes sense to spend more time on the learning side of things and less time on the judging side. Learn much. Judge little.

You may have prejudgments about a person, a group of persons, an event, a religion, and so on. Just as it is impossible not to exercise judgment, it is likewise impossible to approach any encounter without prejudgments and presuppositions that have up to now formed how you approach the world. To spend more time learning (as well as listening) is to take that critical attitude toward oneself to learn something new. Any prejudgment that cannot bear the weight of being subject to critical awareness and reflection is not worth keeping.

It takes intention to decide to spend more time learning and less time judging. But it is worth it. It is time well spent.

More time reflecting, less time reacting

I do not know about you, but I can sometimes be a little rash. I jump to conclusions sometimes too easily and quickly. It is all too easy to react when something takes us by surprise. Armed with all of those prejudgments that condition our understanding of the world, we already know the answer before we even have to think about what it is that we are reacting to! But then, we also might be a little foolish.

There are times to react in life. Still, I think we often react when we should reflect. Reflecting allows us that step back to really think something through. It allows us the time to notice things that would otherwise pass us by. Reflecting opens a door to call ourselves into question, which can both affirm those convictions we should keep and those we must dispense with. Valid convictions have nothing to fear from reflection and questioning. More time reflecting and less time reacting is, I believe, time well spent.

More time outside, less time inside

My inside time means a lot to me. We are all different. Some people cannot sit still and being inside drives them a little nutty. When lockdown was mandated due to Covid-19, staying inside did not bother me a bit. As I joked then, “I have been training for this all of my life!” Yes, I missed the freedom to go places, I missed people and not knowing when I could see them again was difficult. But being inside itself is not a problem for me.

I forget sometimes, as I am sure we all do, that the world is bigger than me. There is more to explore and to learn than I could manage in a thousand more lifetimes. I am an introvert. I could hide away inside the rest of my life and find contentment. But there is so much I would miss, even things that would make my inside time richer for having experienced it. How one spends time outside is different for everyone. But the value of being amongst trees and waterways cannot be truly estimated. Even being in city streets and seeing the wonders of the world (many in your own back yard) cannot be overestimated. Being among people is time well spent. Serving them or serving with them for some good cause is priceless.

Time inside and time outside are both important. But as a rule, I tend to think (the older I get) that more time outside and less time inside is time well spent.

More time loving, less time hating

Hate is a strong word, but we have so much of it. Some careers are built on having hate or conjuring hate in others. Some hate is actually good. We should hate injustice. To be mildly irritated by a great injustice would indicate the absence of a developed moral sense. Some things call for hate. But we could all do with less of it and I think most hate today is not the good kind of which I speak. Besides, it is much more fulfilling to love. I think it wise to love so much that the only time available for hate is the hatred of injustice. Love is an act and like all worthwhile acts, must be done with intent. You cannot love by accident; you have to love on purpose.

More time loving and less time hating is time well spent.

More time giving, less time taking

Like each example I have discussed, it seems that the more time given to one will ensure less time for the other. Giving of yourself, giving of your time means you will take less from others. We all have to have a little give and take. Human relationships are not and can never be one-sided. While I am giving more time to reflecting, one of the things I reflect upon is what kind of person I want to be. Do I want to be a person who gives more or one who takes more?

There is something about giving of yourself that makes you more, not less. In giving myself away, I find that there is more of me. But the more I am a taker, the more the real “I” fades away and diminishes.

Yes, more time giving and less time taking is time well spent.

Certainly, there are numerous other examples that could be listed as to what to give more time to and what to give less time to. I find that lists help when I take the time to do them! In the spirit of the philosophical, that is, the examined, life, spend a little time thinking about time. What am I giving more time to that I should or would like to give less time to? What am I giving little or no time to that I should or would live to give more time to?

Whatever time is, it is more or less…time. Think about what to spend more of it on and less of it on.

That would be time will spent.

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