On leaving school, my advisor reminded me to always take time to think. That seemed like a reasonable suggestion, as I trudged off to teach, write, and, of course, think. But the modern academy doesn’t share this value; faculty are increasingly prodded to “produce” more articles, more presentations, more grant applications, and more PhD students. Nobel prize-winner Peter Higgs remarked on the breakneck pace of today’s scholarship saying, “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”
But having no time to think is not exclusive to the academy, even though the irony there is quite thick. This development is attached to a much larger phenomenon – the quickening of social time. Professional and personal life is simply moving faster and faster. Businesses have always competed to do things better, as in, quicker. Employers and managers expect minute-to-minute attention through smart phones, even on weekends and vacations. Domestic life also feels this pull, as both parents and children feel increasingly overwhelmed by ever-refined schedules which accommodate ever-expanding activities.
In the 1950s, the sociologist Pitrim Sorokin saw how modernity sped up social time, the pace of cultural change. Economic development, expanding communication, and technology cranked up the tempo of social life. And it just gets quicker with no slowing in sight. The Amazon Corporation wants to improve our lives by delivering products the same day that we order them – quicker must be more satisfying to the consumer. The Apple Corporation improved our lives with gadgets that insure we are always in earshot of the next email or text – constant contact must lead to better relationships. And to improve our lives even more, Jeb Bush, echoing overwhelmed managers around the country, warmly asserted that “we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours” – more work and more money must make for a better country! It all might make sense but we don’t really have time to think about it. I need to act, produce, lean in, and clean up.
But why are we doing this? What should we be doing instead? What is the purpose of life? These questions require time to think. But before I keep disparaging the lovely conveniences, wonderfully consumer-oriented corporations, and the speed of living in our post-modern age, I should ponder whether I really need time to think. Aren’t there some advantages to not thinking? Bliss, perhaps? Novelist Colum McCann notes the pitfalls of thinking too hard about our existence: “Just stand still for an instant and there it is, this fear, covering our faces and tongues. If we stopped to take account of it, we’d just fall into despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.” And that’s what Amazon, and Apple, and Jeb give us – something to keep us going. More stuff, more play, and more work, all without any troublesome insinuation to the meaning of it all.
Psychologist Ernest Becker asserted that “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity.” While in the past humans invented mythologies and religions to, as Hannah Arendt put it, create “a purpose that extends beyond the grave,” now we can avoid thinking about our grander purpose by endlessly pre-occupying our minds with schedules, emails, activities, and apps. Over 2000 years ago the philosopher Seneca could not foresee this glorious future but he did note the value of diversions. He advised that distractions, alternatingly serious and amusing, are the best way to keep one’s mind off the impermanence of it all. While the ancient Romans thought up some interesting diversions as they lolled around the Agora, modern Americans put them to shame. Our ability to buy new things, seek new entertainments, work longer hours, and just keep everything moving “forward” far exceed the relative sluggishness of Greek life.
This is the bright upside of constantly producing, consuming, and doing more and more; our relentless activity keeps us adeptly oblivious to the meaning of it all. We definitely feel stressed and overwhelmed, but isn’t that preferable to feeling despair and nihilism? In fact, the pace of post-modernity might have inadvertently solved the central human question – what is the meaning of life? Wittgenstein noted that “the solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.” That is what having no time can accomplish. Religious, philosophical, or moral guides to life are rendered obsolete because our schedules are already full. The purpose of life is simply getting to the next thing on your list. Case closed.
Featured Image Credit: Timepiece Perspective by Unsplash. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.