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Time Travels – Part I

| Lewis Akenji

“We’re a generation that is raised on patience thinner than a condom:
the morning-after pill, microwave ovens, instant messenger, real-time
download, breaking news, gym muscles, 150 km/h highways, low-cost
airlines, fast cash, bullets, 12-year-old pregnant girls, executive
summaries. Instant coffee, instant sex, instant riches, instant
abortion, instant fame….we want it all, and we want it NOW.”

“Yet it is man who does the differentiating;
nature presents space and time together.”

 

Morris Kline, 1953

Mankon,
Cameroon. The interior walls of the mud brick house are coated and
polished by smoke to a shiny black. Heirlooms of similar fate hang on
the wall, distinctly arranged, and especially concentrating on one
corner of the room, from ceiling to floor, that was reserved for the
spirits of the ancestors that still lived among the family. This was
the gathering room where in the evenings the family all ate and told
stories. Before Ama’ngoh bid me to “sleep well”, he reminded me that we
needed to wake up early next morning, “before the crow of the first
cock”. I asked him when the first cock would crow and he shrugged his
shoulders, he didn’t know exactly. So I asked him how we should know
when to wake up and he assured me not to worry, I would “just feel it”.
After he left, I inspected the alarm settings of my watch; not knowing
which hour, minute or second to set for “before the crow of the first
cock”, I dropped it. Earlier, in the last shades of daylight, I had
seen chickens coming home to roost behind the house, so I counted on
them passing me a wakeup note. It would be my first early morning
fishing trip so naturally I was excited, although not being able to
coordinate the event with clockwork threatened to be more overwhelming.
That night I dreamt of hundreds of cocks crowing out watch-ticking
sounds; each time I woke up it was insects hissing outside, the winds
playing with the banana leaves against the roof, or Grandpa snoring.
Finally sleep came to me. Waking up? I failed to “just feel” the time,
the roosters didn’t pass me a note, my wristwatch was senseless about
living time; Ama’ngoh had to scratch for long at the wooden window pane
of the room where I slept in order to wake me up. This was after
the first cock had crowed. In fact the cocks had taken over the sound
waves in the village, supplying a bass to the choir of early chirping
birds.

For the Mankon people, like most indigenous
peoples around the world, time is inseparable from nature. Just as
nature knows when to match the occurrence of a particular flowering
plant to the pollinating insects, the Mankon people have to ‘listen to
the air’ to know the right moment to plant for maximum crop yield.
Different animals and plants are more visible during given periods of
the year; birds chirp differently in the different parts of the day;
the length and intensity of shadows has a message; the winds blow
differently as the day ripens. Time lives with the people and goes
through natural cycles, just like their moods and habits. Time is not
chopped into numbers and mechanical ticks, inflexible hours, minutes
and milliseconds that dictate linear living irrespective of natural
cycles.

 

In the Mankon language, the word for evening, ñkwaifohn, translates as “return from the farm”, which is a process rather than an instant. Thus if a boy and a girl arrange to meet in ñkwaifohn
they both have to be able to listen to the changing mood of the day in
order to feel when that right time to meet would be. The village dance
festival does not automatically occur every year but depends on how
dexterous the villagers have been in understanding the patterns of
nature, and thus maximised the timing for planting, hunting, weddings,
births, etc. Everything is interconnected. The collective fortune of
the village, celebrated at the dance festival, depends on how well they
have harmonised the knowledge of their ancestry and the cycle of
nature. On a bad year, hunger, stress, death and immorality are rife,
and there is no festival. On a good year (which is the usual case, and
an indication of how well the people have come along) during the
festival the village is an arena of bonfires, drums, dances, palm wine,
lovemaking, colours and smiles.

Budapest,
Hungary. I’ve just surfaced above ground at the Margit bridge suburban
train stop. Time: 5:10pm. The skies hold the premature darkness of
winter. Along the left Danube bank, the Parliament building, its dome,
spires and rooftop walkways bathing in strong light beams, show off its
intricate beauty; the Castle, not to be outdone, commands with royal
splendour from the top of the hill, the Fisherman’s Bastion in
entourage; the Chain Bridge has come alive, adorned with lamp jewels
that trace its bodily curves above the gentle waters. It’s just another
evening, and a panorama of Budapest puts Disneyland postcards to shame.

On
the roads, life is different. Cars, locked bumper to bumper, form slow
lines of light and exhaust fumes, curving and stretching with the roads
for as far as one can see on both sides of the river. Every other
minute, the red of their brake lamps would go off, the snake will
struggle forward a few metres then the brake lights are back on. The
situation is no better on the Margit korut along which I walk. In the
light of the headlamps, you can see the cars, inside too. Minis,
Trabants, sleek Sedans, SUVs towering over every other car; a few cars
have families or couples sitting inside, but in most of the cars the
driver seats alone; some not alone are with their mobile phones. At
each opportunity the line moves a couple of meters and the brakes are
applied again. It’s a slow choreography, rehearsed daily with
frustration and the lessons forgotten – or ignored – by next morning.

On
the roadside, pedestrians aren’t exactly having a joyride either,
bumping into each other, avoiding the homeless guy holding out his hat
for “help”, rushing to catch the bus, which, unfortunately, cannot move
because the cars have taken over the bus lane. I walk on, engulfed by
the unavoidable cacophony of loud honks, cussing drivers and high
volume electronic music. Suddenly my hands rush to cover my ears; one
driver has honked and held it down as the sound shatters through the
air. He is indicating to turn right; but in the middle lane and in the
thick of the jam, unless his car doubles as a chopper, there is no way
he can cut out. Still he tries to manoeuvre into the right lane. The
front of his car finds a little gap between two bumpers on his right,
but the driver in that lane wouldn’t let him go in; his trunk is still
caught in the middle lane, and now the driver behind him has moved in;
he’s stuck – he cannot drive ahead, he cannot reverse. In that one
minute, the boiling undercurrents of angry drivers find a vent; what
were at least slow moving lines is now a jumble of directionless SUVs,
sedans, sports cars, and a bus, facing away from, towards, and to the
side of each other. Voices grow loud, honks blare, doors open and slam;
hell’s breaking loose – it’s a competition to see who can express his
or her anger more. You’ve never heard cussing like this before! The
kind of swearing that first describes one’s mother’s private parts and
then goes on to mention a male horse’s and then for five non-stop
minutes, everyone yelling at everyone, all combinations of words
describing acts that Roman empire prostitutes could not have dreamt up.
I make a swift turn into the Bem art cinema café and order “anything
sweet.”

Stress, eating disorders, heart attacks,
attention deficiencies, depression; these are human conditions related
to perceptions and use of time. The more disembodied our attitudes
towards time are, the more we treat it as an abstract concept that is
not built into natural, living cycles, and the higher our tendency to
be affected. We set the alarm clock, rush to the office for 8 hours and
then carry the laptop home to finish in time for the deadline; we take
a break and order coffee-to-go; try to understand ourselves more by
watching “reality” TV shows than being a part of real-life adventures;
we fuck the glossy computerised images of Cosmopolitan and Playboy than
we make love to each other; we buy toy guns and GameBoys for our kids
and numb their minds from the childhood curiosity of exploring the
natural world.

In About Time: Speed, Society, People and the Environment
(Greenleaf Publishing, 2005), the award-winning writer, Jay Griffiths,
writes: “In the modern Euro-American culture, time is a dead thing, a
disembodied ghost no longer embodied in nature; the moment struck dumb
by the striking clock, the deadening character of routines, schedules
and endlessly counted and accounted time. By contrast, in most
cultures, for most of history, time has one supremely different
quality; time is alive. And is lived as such. The Euro-American image
of time is a machine, a factory assembly line chucking out identical
hours, each unremarked and indistinguishable.” Count along with this
list, and attempt to discard any little corners where you do not have a
clock, a calendar, or a disembodied time artefact urging you on: on the
wall, by the bed, on your mobile phone set, the stereo set, TV set, the
computer, in the car, on your office desk, microwave oven, on your
wrist; the clock on the church tower, the orange light on the traffic
lamp (quick decision: to stop or not to stop?), the counter at the
metro stations (and the faces of the train passengers bearing the
weight of time).

In our modern lifestyles we tend to
function, to respond to time rather than live with it. This process of
mechanisation is systematically built into every step of our
self-alienating world. There’s no stepping out of the clock; our being
is broken down to minutes, seconds, and milliseconds, each one of which
must be filled with a measurable achievement. Unfortunately, cities,
teeming artificial expanses testifying to human technological
eloquence, all too easily serve preconditions for self-alienation. We
sleep and work in concrete walls in which we have replaced natural
light with fluorescent lamps, breathe in industrial pollution, and
drive home in rolling metal boxes; we’ve built multibillion dollar
industries out of creating artificial climates so we can ski in the
summer and eat strawberries in the winter; we’ve forgotten about the
excitement of waiting for the apple season, or smelling the first
spring flowers. Our lifestyles are independent of nature, but as long
as we are still natural beings, with time the costs fall back on us.
Consider the following:

  • Average time per week spent watching TV and video rose from 17.1 hours in 1992 to 33.01 in 2004.(AGB Hungary)
  • Some 60% of Hungarians spend over 30 minutes per day commuting to work. (Hungarian Central Statistical Office)
  • 52,4%
    of workplace accidents are connected to insomnia, 42-49% of road
    accidents happen because the driver is sleepy or unobservant; 1/3 of
    people suffering from insomnia also suffer from anxiety, and a
    significant portion of them turn to alcohol. (HIPPOCRATES)
  • More than twice as many Hungarian men between 35 and 55 died in 1993 than in 1970. (International Herald Tribune)
  • Half
    of premature deaths (before age of 65) are caused by illnesses related
    to stress. Premature death among middle-aged women is three times more
    frequent in Hungary than the European average; there’s only 59% chance
    of living longer than the age of 65 among men (compared to 80% chance
    in Austria). (Népszabadság)
  • Hungary ranks last or second to last in virtually all categories of cardiovascular disease, such as strokes and heart attacks. (OECD)
  • Use
    of antidepressants more than tripled in less than ten years (6.3 in
    1995 to 20.2 in 2003, in Defined Daily Doses/1000 inhabitants). (Egészségügyi Stratégiai Kutatóintézet)

But
just putting together these numbers is heart consuming – more so than
time consuming – and I’ve not even dared to include the ones on
“suicide”; “divorces”; “statements of pessimism” etc from which I’d
rather refrain.

We’re a
generation that is raised on patience thinner than a condom: the
morning-after pill, microwave ovens, instant messenger, real-time
download, breaking news, gym muscles, 150 km/h highways, low-cost
airlines, fast cash, bullets, 12-year-old pregnant girls, executive
summaries. Instant coffee, instant sex, instant riches, instant
abortion, instant fame….we want it all, and we want it NOW.

The
concept of sustainability is all about time: how to learn from the past
and live into the future without self-destructing. Many of our
environmental problems are inherited from the past: if our great Grands
hadn’t postponed their responsibilities or had been more perceptive and
addressed problems as they arose, we wouldn’t be steeped in this mess
today. On hind sight, ignorance is on their side. Today, given the
discrepancy between what we know and how we’re acting, it’s a wonder
what excuse history will give us for knowingly preparing calamities for
our grand children.

History, our knowledge of past time,
has always been a ménage of religion, science, and the state. Depending
on the period in the past there was one of the temple, the palace or
the telescope standing higher. Recently – in the last century – a new
head surfaced that is now taking over. Capitalism is a religion,
consumerism is the law, business is the science. The Corporation.
Whether we understand its effects in our lives or not, we’re almost all
partakers and it is rewriting all facets of our lives in previously
unknown manners.

This January I met with a friend, Zsuzsa
Varga, in her apartment to celebrate her recent promotion at work.
Drinks, music, chats, friends, you know, the funky atmosphere of
camaraderie. Late into the night and into some bottles of wine, I got
into a quiet, not-casual talk with Zsuzsi about her work. She’s an
exemplary 21st century corporate manager, functioning with
clockwork efficiency; she ticks at the right minute, smiles at 10
o’clock, alarms when needed. Her bosses love her hard work and
dedication; she’s had two promotions in the last three yeas. She had
recently divorced from the troubles of her 2-year marriage (“my husband
was not supportive of my career”), and now has an affair with a “more
matured, understanding gentleman”, and found a “very caring babysitter”
for her three-year old son.

From listening, it’s happy
hour all the way. But by this point in the talk, she had wet three
paper napkins, a shoulder of my shirt and was now employing the sleeves
of her sweater. We moved out to the balcony where there was no one
else. “So why aren’t you sure of the promotion?” I asked. Her answer
was a set of questions for me: Do you know how many people in this city
hate their work but can’t leave because they need the money? the volume
of prescription of antidepressants per year? work related stress,
broken families, drugs, heart diseases, suicides? How much time do you
spend with your friends or family? How often do you get to do the
things you want and the way you want them?

What could I
say? I stayed mute. Zsuzsi is a survivor, she’d bounce back. We’ve all
learned to bend over backwards and spring back. But how much and how
often can we bounce back when each time we bounce we weaken the
elasticity of the life springs inside us?

We live more
than half of our waking lives at work. If we factor in the time spent
traveling to the office and back and the time thinking about work, that
fraction runs up to about two thirds. With that, it isn’t untrue to say
that we live to work. Why do we work? The answers are not that easy,
but there’s a safe bet that a big part of it involves being able to
sustain our lives – food, water, TV, cars, fresh air away from the city
our cars pollute. Is it therefore too much to ask of our employers,
companies, to assume more responsibilities for our livelihoods than
just counting salaries and counting down to deadlines?

The
day we start believing in the wisdom of adulthood against the
simplicity of our childhood convictions of infinite possibilities is
the day we learn to condemn ourselves. Depending on your school of
thought, your answer to the big question – The Meaning of Life? – is
likely to be different: Fulfilment of humankind’s potential; Happiness;
Explore (and rule?) the cosmos; A passage to a higher level of
existence…However you and I disagree, one thing we don’t stand apart
on is the need to be happy in life, and to look forward to a brighter
tomorrow. Whether or not the corporation is helping us in that or
pulling us away from better alternatives, the answer is at large. Time
will tell.

A common sentence in
the city is “if only I had the time to…” Yet I have always learned
that every possibility is only a matter of time. It’s a matter of time
before the rain stops falling, before I get that dream job, before
Turkey joins the EU; it’s only a matter of time before I get over the
heartache. Time is a pill, the magic cure of all ails we wish to pass
away; yet time is something we refuse to live with, preferring to live
by.

In essence, your time is your life; how you spend
your time reflects what matters to you in life, your real values.
Irrespective of how crazy our environment might be, our personal
attitudes towards time influence the peace of our minds, thus our
happiness. We can all learn to be interconnected islands of calm in the
face of the chiming clocks. Time is a falling leaf in the autumn; time
is a glass of wine on a birthday; time is a friend over a cup of tea;
time is a musical note; time leafing through a dog-eared family photo
album; time is a kiss; a hug; a smile; time is budding spring flowers;
time is a wrinkle on the face; time is a laugh.

Time is not a clock.

Time is your heart beating.

 

 

This article first appeared in the Conscious Consumer magazine, issue 8.

Lewis Akenji is Editor-in-Chief of
Conscious Consumer magazine, and a consultant on Sustainable Consumption.

 

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