When “sleeping in” means being up by sunrise in the summer, when “going to bed early” still requires four to six hours of electric light to see to do tasks after sunset, when we are already behind on the day’s required tasks before the day has properly begun, we are ordering our time wrong.
When we agonize for an hour on the computer over what shoes to buy to match the suit we will wear once to a presentation for a room full of people who are not listening to anything that is said, but can never find time to think about what we want from life or to talk with people who care, we are ordering our time wrong.
When we spend two hours buying plane tickets, renting vehicles, booking hotel rooms; spend eight hours in various airports, eating horribly over-packaged not-food, staring at our phones; spend three hours getting away from the airports, checking into stale rooms, trying to make them as comfortable as home; and then spend the next week ticking items off an itinerary, activities mostly involving eating much more not-food and buying useless junk that will take up suitcase space and then be forgotten and discarded almost as soon as it is unpacked, all of it involving prodigious use of credit cards, all in the futile pursuit of relaxation, before we repeat the process in reverse, we are ordering our time wrong.
When we rush from one task necessary for wage work to the next; when we spend fifteen minutes burning gasoline in a drive-thru to buy an overpriced coffee delivered in a large piece of toxic plastic that will outlive our culture (for a nutritionally useless beverage that would scarcely cost less in time and your wage hours, to say nothing of embodied material resources and pollution, if you were to brew a rather more tasty cup of coffee in your own home); when we when we eat dinner in our car on the way to our CV-enhancing volunteer projects; when we buy gym memberships full of ridiculous machinery that is designed to mimic the work that our bodies evolved to do (and which we could obtain freely as a happy externality of actually doing the work necessary to maintain our bodies with our bodies) and yet rarely find time to go to that place and, when there, spend most of our time staring at more screens, but never actually feed or use our bodies and our time on this planet in ways that are biologically and emotionally productive and healthy, then we are ordering our time wrong.
And in ordering our time wrong, we are living wrong.
As you likely know, I believe that this is all by design. We are kept busy doing things that are harmful to ourselves and to this planet specifically to keep our attention divided enough that we do not have time to notice that we are busy doing things that are harmful to ourselves and to this planet. We are distracted intentionally. Because if we have time to think, to reflect, to wake up from this zombie sleepwalking busyness, we will undoubtedly refuse to participate in this system. Because it is harmful to both this planet and our own bodies, and that is painfully clear as soon as you get thirty seconds for uninterrupted reflection. So there is an imperative built into this system to keep all of us too busy to grab that thirty seconds.
Nevertheless, some of us, mainly those of us who come from privilege, manage to snatch that thirty seconds of reflection from the maw of capitalism. This almost invariably is followed by schemes to escape, in body and in mind, from that maw. (Of course, enacting these schemes almost invariably results in losing a considerable degree of that privilege… these are not unrelated phenomena…)
Because I live, as most white women do, on pilfered privilege, I managed to escape the maw to steal back the thirty seconds necessary to see it for what it is. And then I made a shift to pushing fewer buttons and doing more physical work to maintain my body. I did this primarily because most of those buttons are fueled with fossilized carbon energy and I wanted to reduce my dependency on this thing I hate. But in the process of slowing down and doing more tasks by hand, I have discovered many other benefits. I now eat very well. I have good food, grown at or near my home, not soaked in petrochemical poisons, not slathered in sugars or fats or salty condiments to make it palatable. Actual “real food / mostly plants”. What my body needs for nutrition and what therefore delights my palate all by itself.
And because I do not bother with presentation or artificial variety (which are both merely status and wealth signaling and serve only to perpetuate the system that rewards them), I can cook a wonderful pot of stew that lasts me a week of delicious dinners with less daily effort and much less daily expense than acquiring take-out every day or microwaving a frozen meal — both of which also require substantial efforts in trash management, among other time and resource wastes. Instead, my clean-up is washing a few real dishes and cutlery that I use over and over again, in the sink, not a button-laden dishwasher, in warm soapy water that soothes my arthritic hands and frees my mind to wander.
And in doing all this good work — from growing veg to cooking stew to cleaning up the things I use and tidying them away — I have the palpable pleasure of knowing I am doing good for both the planet and for my body because, crucially, I now have the time to realize this, to know this. Because I tend to and use my body in ways that demand my time, I now have the time to consider what I am doing, how I am doing it, why I am doing it. I have the time for reflection. I have the time to cultivate wisdom — while caring for my body in a much superior fashion than if I bought into the button-pushing “convenience” system.
There are many such ways to slow down and grow wisdom while tending to your own bodily needs. All of these things are better for humans and better for the rest of the world than pushing convenient buttons. (These are not unrelated). But none of them are good at generating profit for others. It is profitable to make us all waste our time, our bodies, and as many resources as possible in never quite meeting our needs and generating myriad wants along the way. It is not at all profitable for us to meet our own needs happily and healthily and without waste. Waste is necessary to profitability. Unnecessary want and its resultant unhappiness are necessary to profitability. Most importantly, our abidingly unhealthy bodies and completely distracted minds are absolutely necessary to profitability. We can not meet our own needs without reducing the profits of others.
What I am saying is that if we quit wasting all our lives and much of this planet’s material existence supporting the profits of others, we will all live better. Our needs will be met. We will be happier, healthier and wiser. We will have time to really, truly live. And in the process, we will be doing exactly what this planet needs us to do — stop the button-pushing waste stream. (This also is not unrelated.)
Our bodies do not like screens and buttons any more than the planet does. Our eyes don’t like them. Our hands don’t like them. Our muscles and internal organs hate them. Our minds just melt into oblivion. Our bodies like to work and do not much like being sedentary machine casings for minds that do busywork and little else. Our bodies like pretty much exactly the opposite — being busy in body and unencumbered in mind. Our bodies like doing mildly strenuous, physical work with gentle repetition and relaxed pacing, the kind of tasks that can be done by muscle memory, the use of hand that frees the mind, gives us time to think while we meet our living needs. Our bodies like to consider the sunset while we weed the garden. Our bodies like to reflect on meaning and memory while we weave and craft beautiful things that will serve us for decades to come. Our bodies especially like to dream of the future while we make nourishing food for the present. Our bodies absolutely hate sitting in front of screens doing nothing; and all parts of us, body and mind, atrophy when parked for hours in desk chairs.
But we have elevated the mind over the body; and likewise, busywork done with the mind is more prestigious and valuable in our culture than the real work which actually supports the body and therefore makes mind work possible. Mind workers are puerilely dependent but yet earn higher wages and higher status. This paradox has, I think, considerably eroded our concepts of work and time and worth. Real, necessary work is to be shunned. It is dirty and low, best done in basements and back rooms. The kind of work that is done with screens and buttons, busywork, useless work, is highly visible and richly appointed. It is what we aspire to — even as our bodies deplore it.
What a way to order our time!
Not only are we confused as to the relative merit of real work and busywork and spend far too much of our lives on the latter while trying to wedge the former into corners — because it is actually necessary to eat food every day, among other real world tasks — but this button pushing culture of convenience — meaning more time spent on mind tasks while off-loading real work somewhere else — is corroding our views of everything that is done with the body in real time. We have forgotten that what is worthwhile means it is worth spending time in obtaining it. We have forgotten that things like love and hope are verbs, done not just in the mind and fantasy, but in the body and in time. Real work of all kinds takes time and effort and usually can not be curtailed — because it is done in the real world through real material processes. But now, with our privileged screens and our convenient buttons, we believe everything should be instantaneous and ought to come without bodily effort — our own, anyway, somebody’s body is being ground to dust in order for each of those instant gratification buttons to work…
So we aspire to busywork and, when able, give all our time over to it. And those who are left doing the real work must work endlessly — because they earn little for doing it and because they must do it for all those who are not, as well as for themselves. So we are all working zombies, with no time for thought. No time to consider what we are doing and why. No time to actually live.
Escaping the zombie busyness for that thirty seconds is the essential first step to improving our own health and the health of this planet. It is also nearly impossible if we don’t already have the means of escape. Most people are well and truly trapped in this nightmare. And we know it. Even if that knowledge is subconscious, we know we are doing life wrong, that we hate it bodily, that this way of ordering time is not beneficial to anyone. Not even those who gain financially from all this privileged busyness. For they are part of this planet also and are affected by its degradation. They may have avoided the worst harm so far, but we are entering into that nasty stage of cultural and biophysical collapse that is impossible to escape — because it is everywhere and everything. So even they are feeling the harm. Sometimes this brings me hope: if the people with means are suffering, surely they will take steps to eliminate the causes of that suffering. Surely… But mostly I just get discouraged… because they unfailingly take exactly the wrong steps, both for themselves and for the planet (not unrelated).
So I would like to suggest new steps. I am speaking directly to those who are probably not reading, but still… You privileged few who have lived by the mandates of wealth accumulation, here is your chance for redemption. Of course, first we must deal with your delusions. You are not going to take any of that wealth with you when you die. You are also not going to live forever to enjoy it, not even in name or in progeny (how many of you know even one of great-great-grandfathers’ names?). You are going to cease. Very soon. And nothing of your existence will outlast your body except the harm you have caused — and, as things are going now, that will linger long after all memory of this entire culture is lost. Since none of your wealth is going to do you any good in a very short time, you might as well make use of this small window to do something that might make your existence less of a curse on the future. Make the future possible for those who have been trapped in the system that built your wealth. Give them back that thirty seconds. Give it all back.
It is very easy to live off of the little wages that come from doing small and beneficial things with the surplus that you inevitably generate in doing anything, but only if you have the big expenses in this brutal system of rent extortion met. You can live well on very little income only if you already own a home in which to produce and meet your needs, a shelter from the conditions that will sicken our bodies and a bit of soil in which to grow nourishing food. But few of us have that home. This is by design. Our culture is predicated on maximizing the number of people who do not have these basic means and so have to work for wages to pay those who own the means — and who profit from the wage work. Wealth is created only through denying a livelihood to everyone else.
So those of you who have wealth really ought to feel morally obliged to redistribute it to those you have denied. Make it possible for them to live free from the constraints of the system that benefitted you and harmed them. Give them homes and land. And do this in a way that it is so legally bound that it can’t be undone, that this gift can’t be used to accumulate wealth now or later. Make this a gift of possibility to the present that will increase in spreading benefits well into the future. Make it so that time to reflect, time to do beneficial work, time to love, to hope, to live, time to tend to your own needs is not dependent on the extracted time of others. Make it so that life is not a privilege. Do this now, while you are alive and whole, so that there is no question of your intent. Do this now and you may be remembered as the people that atoned for their excesses.
Because once most of us can meet our own needs, this savage system will just stop. And it will stop in ways that do not involve mass suffering — which is where we are currently headed. “Meeting needs” means being whole and healthy and alive. It also means not needing. There will be no need for ordering time in the foolish ways we do now. No need for busyness and distraction. No need for screens and buttons. No need for waste and destruction and this system that is dependent on spreading both. Much less need for wage work and fossil fuels and poison and privilege. And no desire for anything that causes all this harm. When we live well, we allow the planet to live well… we create futures… and lives… and wisdom.
I have little hope that we will avoid devastation. Because I do not believe that those who control the ability to order time and meet needs are going to willingly give up that privilege.
But I would dearly love to be proven wrong.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022