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What Do We Mean When We Say “We Don’t Have Time”?


To become aware of time is to become aware of life itself.

Of all the obligations with which we unconsciously come into contact during our lifetimes, time is one of the most difficult to notice and understand. Most of us are like those fish in the David Foster Wallace story, in which an old fish meets two young fish. When he says hello, he asks: “Hey guys, how’s the water?” The old fish leaves without waiting for an answer but the young fish remain confused and silent, until one says to the other: “What the hell is water?” Time is our water.

The difficulty in becoming aware of time is due to several factors. One of them is its very nature, somewhere between enigmatic and incomprehensible. Time passes, it occurs, and as soon as we believe we’ve understood it, it runs away once more, even at any given moment. Our minds, it might be said, are capable of perceiving time, but not of understanding it. And perhaps that’s a second factor, for all we see of time are its effects on the reality we inhabit. At the moment we look at the hands of the clock, we measure time’s pace, in the succession of a day or night, in our passage from childhood to youth, from youth to maturity and from there to old age. To watch time is somehow to confront death and the end of things, and for many people that is simply unpleasant. This is because of the culture in which we’ve been formed, and which has taught us to fear death and to avoid it. Culture even makes us believe that it is possible to live as if death will never arrive or as if it doesn’t exist. Yet still, time passes.

In our own age, many people live under the persistent impression that they simply “don’t have time.” Not infrequently, this idea is accompanied by a dual reality. Such people’s occupations are diverse and yet, they experience a certain dissatisfaction in that they can’t do all that they want to.

Once again, we can’t help but notice the context in which we find ourselves. It’s a context in which we’re encouraged to do more and more: to work more, to enjoy more, to have more experience, etc. Our culture invites us to this excess rather than to sobriety, and excess is, by definition, insatiable. There’s no life which achieves doing all that it was supposedly “called to do” or which we believe is necessary to “fully live life.”

But then, where is the oppression after all? In time? Or in all of the occupations we think we should follow to fulfill the ideal life?

Time, in fact, is a river which snatches away, and a tiger which destroys, and a fire which consumes, as Borges once wrote. But what can we do about it? What can we do with time? Stop it? Delay it? Make it go slower? It’s not possible.

We can, however, do one thing: become aware of the passage of time in our own lives. Recognize ourselves as finite beings, and in this transition, we live beneath this consciousness only for a moment. Realize that time exists, but it’s not the time of calendars and clocks, but rather an unstoppable flow we call life, and this is expressed only in this present moment.

It seems like very little, right? Nothing more than an instant to live your life. It’s better if you take advantage of it, don’t you think?

Also in Faena Aleph: Three Projects to Help You Rethink Your Relationship with Time

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