Catching Up With a Sinking Sun
Throw your life away, one miserable hour at a time
In Pink Floyd’s “Time”, Roger Waters writes, “Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.” It’s a statement that hits you harder if you are over thirty but still relevant to everybody at every age.
Waters wasn’t just commenting on the apathy of the English society in the 1970s. He knew that all around the world, beyond England, people were “hanging on in quiet desperation” all the same. He was warning us about letting time slip before it’s too late, before it’s all gone.
We all keep preparing for that day, that future event to relaunch our lives, without realizing we are already in the middle of it. This is it. Today. That’s your life.
But it’s not all your fault (a big part it is); they’ve been training the masses for centuries and have convinced us all that time is no longer ours.
Let’s explore how we got here.
I’m not paying you to lounge around
Time has been present at every moment of your existence. Run or you will miss the bus; stand up and move to the next classroom when your hear the bell; and of course, enjoy the weekend with your kids, but first let us take four dozen hours of your life to grow our riches.
Our perception of time and how we use it, how we consume it, hasn’t always been the same. It has changed throughout history and still varies across cultures in the present.
Labor patterns before the second half of the eighteenth century, before the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of machines powering large-scale production, were irregular. Agriculture, building, transportation, and most other activities could be disrupted by bad weather, but as long as these operations ran in a domestic, small way they didn’t require synchronization among large groups or accurate time budgets. Task orientation was the norm and actions rather than clocks guided people’s lives.
Edward Thompson, the British historian, relates in his fascinating essay Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism how primitive people measured time in relation with “familiar processes in the cycle of work or of domestic chores.” He talks of the Cross River natives in Southern Nigeria, “The man died in less than the time in which maize is not yet completely roasted,” and the monks in Burma rising at dawn “when there is light enough to see the veins in the hand.”
“The institution of wage labor is a sophisticated latecomer,” declares Moses Finley in his Ancient Economy, where he dedicates a chapter to the peculiar relationship between masters and slaves in the times of Greeks and Romans.
Our Mediterranean forebears couldn’t separate somebody’s labor from their person and the product of their work. They could buy a piece of fine jewelry from a craftsman, produced on his time and under his own conditions of work, or they could buy the craftsman, but they wouldn’t have thought of buying the craftsman’s labor power, an abstraction, and paying for it using labor time, another abstraction. The concept of wage labor didn’t exist yet.
But by the late eighteenth century production methods were moving from hands to machines and manufacturing techniques demanded a larger degree of labor synchronization and exactitude in society’s time routines, prompting the transition to industrial capitalism. Timed labor had arrived and time no longer passed but was spent; if you were not utilizing it, you were wasting it.
In the early days of capitalism idleness was prevented by holding down wages and folks started getting used to the idea that if you were working for somebody you were not the owner of your time anymore.
This moral logic survives today and employers zealously follow it, feeling robbed when an employee is not visibly busy at all times. This is perhaps one of the reasons why so many business owners despise remote work. They relish the smell of the burning hours they have paid for.
The feeling of power bosses experience from commanding other people’s lives overcomes everything. I knew a person who did a very lousy job and was often disrespectful to their colleagues but the managers didn’t care—even when a few employees complained about him.
But the moment they found him spending time, so-called company’s time, on other projects, they fired him. Right on the spot. And nobody in that office ever spoke of him. And why would they? You don’t mess with the masters’ time.
The husbandry of time
Pray, shut up, and go to work. Suffer along the way and you’ll get extra chances to get into that bar where nothing, nothing ever happens. That’s what most religions are about.
They have promoted time thrift for centuries, deploying their preachers to instruct the flocks to take good care of time as a moral obligation and to engage in worldly activities.
And you would be right to be confused, the material world and the wheels of production shouldn’t be a concern of the guys auctioning tickets to a perfect, although imaginary, spiritual world; however, don’t forget for a second that a dichotomy like this is a major feature of every organized cult.
Boy, I could write a book about that.
The long-term conditioning did the trick and time is money had become a proverb when Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in the early twentieth century.
Work without a purpose
If you think that the system would be content with owning your waking hours, you don’t know the system well enough. Having you busy all the time is just the beginning, and to complete your submission, you have to spend your days—if possible your nights—on meaningless work.
This inclement machine surely knows how to crush its servants.
There are many talented people in the world wasting their skills on bullshit: designers who could create campaigns to combat poverty produce ads to sell you middle-age happiness pills; programmers who could use data science to untangle the mysteries of our biology sprinkle doggy features on spoiled teenagers’ selfies; and—the saddest of them all—writers who could compose inspiring stories fabricate speeches for corrupt politicians to vomit.
A job without a purpose or, even worst, invented to just fill time and inflate invoices—that is, make-work—is poison to the human mind.
I had a friend in Peru who joined the army very young to escape from the poor, remote town where he was born. Peru has many problems but, unlike the United States, is not a country engaged in forever wars, so I found reasonable to ask him, “What is a soldier supposed to do in a country without wars?” It took him no more that two seconds to respond, “You are supposed to be in a constant state of attention.”
And that’s how most people live—in a constant state of attention, doing nothing, waiting for others to tell them what to do next while hoping to someday break the chain and get their freedom back.
You are forgoing today preparing for a brighter future that may never come.
Face up, make your stand
But you don’t need bosses or preachers to force you to spill your time. You can be as effective on your own and without even realizing it.
I’ve worked independently for quite some years and I’ve had many clients that I’ve charged by the hour. As I got more gigs I started to count every hour I was not working as money I was not earning and I couldn’t do much away from a computer without fretting. I felt like throwing dollar bills into a bonfire every passing minute while ruining my family’s days—I had turned my life into a race against myself.
Eventually I realized how stupid this was and I started to make some changes: I fired some clients, the ones that had me running all the time while burning the most time, and focused on projects that better aligned with what I enjoy doing; I went back to having short trips with my wife and kids during the weekends and longer ones during the holidays (can’t do it that often yet but we’ll get there); and I simplified and optimized my budget to reduce unnecessary expenses with the goal of working to live instead of living to work.
You gotta stop. Today. And yes, I can hear all your excuses already but shut it, at least take some minutes to ponder about it. Do it now.
We all have to find a balance; yours is different from mine and everybody else’s, but no matter the circumstances everybody reaches a point where he or she has to decide if it’s worth it to continue sacrificing years to The Man, just to get a little more coin, instead of going after the real good life.
Waters said it best, “You run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking.”
Your time is your life, don’t throw it away as tomorrow may be too late.