I recently wrote about the annoying quirks of being a teenager, but one major theme I missed out was that feeling that we are waiting for real life to begin: for the world to organize itself such that opportunities, jobs, boyfriends fall into our lap; for our adult independence. ‘finally, I’ll be able to do X when I leave home/have money/have turned 18’. So reading Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in my second week of university, the way the characters just sit around, barely attempting to pass the time by engaging in non-functional conversation, constantly asking what they’re doing and reminding each other that they’re just waiting, felt rather familiar. It’s at once a reflection on the human condition, and a meta-exercise in how to fill theatrical time, the two hours of captive attention that it is given the playwright to divert – or in this case to frustrate (twice).
We know that Waiting for Godot is a play, so even three-quarters of the way through, when we begin to suspect that Godot, whoever he is, just isn’t going to arrive, we can comfort ourselves knowing that there is at least an end to the monotony in sight. Theatrical convention dictates that the play will end no more than three hours, and probably no less than one hour, from its start (else I’ve paid 30 euros for nothing!). Whether the Biblical convention of three score and ten years will apply to our lifespan is less certain. Yet we treat our unknown allotment of time in a similar way: like teenage me, we either sit in wait for some future point when things will be ‘better’, or … we panic.
When we see that lifespan visualized as so many weeks marked out on a diagram, looking scarily short (and so much of it already gone!) it’s not surprising that we should rush to fill each of those seven days, those ticking seconds, with the means to die regret-free. So we divide in order to conquer: we measure our weeks into pockets, packaging them up in different ways, allocating, organizing and exploiting. If we’re not killing ourselves at work with extra projects taken on purely because we want the promotion that will, later, enable us to employ our work hours more interestingly (we hope), we’re calculating how best to fit our million hobbies and friends into our leisure hours. If you spend your weekend trekking from brunch with one friend to lunch with another to a dinner party to a club afterwards à la London Young Professional, you’re considered to have had a productive and therefore good day. The no-man’s-land of commuting time and even the ten minutes between turning the lights off and falling asleep are no exception: these too must be made productive, perhaps cramming a podcast into that thirty-minute bus journey, or a quick Ted talk into your sleepy moments.
The trouble is that mental time and clock time don’t work in the same way. Every life occupation generates stress, and the pressure to perform well at a job that you need in order to have a living creates the most stress. In order to purge this mental lactic acid, you need to stop performing the activity and detach from it entirely until it subsides. If it has any reach into the time you’re setting aside to actually recover from doing said activity (i.e. your evenings and weekends), you simply aren’t able to detox. Hence Daimler’s famous (albeit opt-in!) policy of automatically deleting emails sent to employees on annual leave. In the meantime, the other parts of our lives also create stress, even if we don’t know it. Hobbies that set any kind of performance standard (e.g. gym, healthy eating), or in which other people depend on our participation (e.g. team sports, choir) generate a constant and tiring mental discourse that says we need to be there on time, it’s unfair on the others to bail, we need to perform. Social time has the same effect (although I wonder whether this only applies to introverts): again, we need to be there on time, we need to be ‘on form’, we need to be willing to make ourselves heard in a loud restaurant, we need to make compromises around where to meet and what activities to engage in, we need to be ready to respond to probing questions or dismantle tension, we need to plan our travel …
This means that we cannot simply consider our evenings and (some of our) weekends as ‘free time’. It is time that, by the clock, is unaccounted for and therefore theoretically available for other activities. Mentally, however, it is time that is already requisitioned as a very necessary detox zone. So when we fill every waking moment, we not only do not allow ourselves to recover from everyday stress, meaning stress levels persist, but we add additional stress creators that only increase mental load.
So time spent ‘doing nothing’ is actually time that our minds need in order to function properly, and is only ‘wasted’ if we apply the logic of productivity and optimization that we carry over from our working lives into our wider existence (I’ve said this before). The logic makes sense in a business context where the aim is to minimise cost/maximise return, perhaps most of all where chargeable hours are involved, but makes less sense in a life context in which optimized time just doesn’t fit with our mental rhythms.
What is this mental rhythms/inner life business? Are they even things that exist?! I say this knowing that in writing it comes across as wishy-washy/estranged from reality, but I’m trying to express the desire for something like self-knowledge and spiritual enlightenment that I think we all have, the pursuit of which simply can’t be diarized, can’t be allocated to a half-hour slot in between Bikram yoga and your friend’s birthday drinks and expected to progress. Progression in this regard could possibly come through effort and habit (which is a disciplined organization of time), or it could strike all of a sudden, but it certainly won’t happen while half your attention is directed towards overtaking the slow cyclist in front of you and the other half to the podcast pounding into your eardrums. It certainly won’t happen when there’s a deadline attached and every passing tick of the clock tells you that you’re not making progress, that your thirty minutes are in the process of being wasted!
Instead, it requires you to actually have left some mental time and space between you and the causes of your distraction. It sort of requires you to forget that there is time: forget that, right now, the second hand is marching towards the hour at which you’ll need to leave the house to get that bus; forget that your boss asked you to do that thing that you haven’t yet done. If you can get away from the ticking second, the dozens of engagements that you’ve so eagerly crammed in, and the need to make it all worthwhile in case you die tomorrow, then you move towards something more like the clichéd ‘living in the present’. Closing your eyes, sitting quietly, observing your inner life, making peace with yourself, examining your decisions/faults, communing with your newborn baby, with your relatives, trying to extend your mind towards something else – other people, the general world, God (meditating/praying), while trying to ignore the nagging neuron pulses that say you need food, need to get back to work, need to get going soon …
In the pre-modern world, there is such a thing as eternity: not the continual monotonous repetition of discrete periods of time passing like beads on a string, as our ‘divide and conquer’ attitude might conceive of it, but a state more like the eternal present that the religious and the mindful attempt to attain, living deeply now rather than skating in shallow anticipation from second to second. Time, instead, is a creation of God, allowing the possibility of change, which optimally means conversion. Since time itself is ‘temporary’, it almost doesn’t matter if it is ‘wasted’ in false imprisonment or caring for a relative who doesn’t know or remember you; if anything, these may be some of the best opportunities we have for engaging with the infinite present of our inner lives. At the other end of the scale, in the world of Waiting for Godot, there is no meaning (possibly), and time has no purpose, so the characters may just as well attempt to amuse themselves with games and silly conversation as sit around waiting for the end. That there is no eternity – that the play will end the same way our lives will one day be snuffed out – may make these diversions, the equivalent of our endless rounds of social engagements and hobbies, a necessary remedy against having to engage with what you might call our demons, including the possibility that it is all meaningless. Perhaps this is in part what we are doing too – not filling, but killing time.
As always, am I going to suggest that we need to find a healthy middle ground – between ruthlessly controlling our time and just letting it be? Actually, no. I am tending towards thinking that no matter how good our balancing act, how judicious our time management, action or achievement (doing), and thinking or being, are simply different modes of existence. I’m not sure how successfully we can make compromises between them, because I think that we derive happiness primarily from the latter – from within, rather than from what the world provides us. To sum up, we just can’t get by without downtime: the sort of downtime that simply lets us be; not the sort that twiddles its thumbs through a play in which nothing happens, hoping the bar will still be open when it’s over.