Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Waste of Time?

Time with us is handled much like a material; we earn it, spend it, save it, waste it. -- Edward T. Hall

I have no idea where I picked up this book or when, but I just started reading an 1959 book by Hall titled The Silent Language. "An anthropologist reveals how we communicate by our manners and behavior," it says on the cover. I've only read the first introductory chapter, and I'm fascinated.

I gather the book is about cultural differences in general, and how "body language" figures into that in specific. But to kick things off, he spent several pages talking about how different cultures perceive time and the difficulty that causes in communication. Like . . . in Latin America, waiting 45 minutes for someone you've scheduled an appointment with is not the least bit unexpected. And . . . in some Native American tribes, "the future has no reality to it", so convincing them that building this dam now will give them more grazing land for their sheep next year is almost useless. Granted, his examples are 70 years old and possibly outdated, but the point remains.

And he discusses how we Americans are obsessed with time, and the whole world sees it. We are fanatical about using our time efficiently, about promptness, about not "wasting" time, about the future and change and progress (although the future, for us, is perhaps a generation ahead -- the South Asian, he says, will think in terms of thousands and thousands of years). Witness our culture of hypertension and ulcers and insomnia.

Many thoughts running through my head while reading this chapter. I wonder how much of the world is still this different in their thinking? I mean, has our more modern, flatter earth meant that we've spread our perception of time to the rest of the planet, and those cultures have succumbed to it? How many places are there left in the world that don't accommodate our slavery to the clock?

Also, what made us this way? And isn't it fascinating that we have a hard time not only comprehending another's way of perceiving time, but giving it any credibility as a legitimate way to operate in life? So what if things don't "progress" in their culture as quickly as it does in ours -- who determined that "progress", as we define it, is what makes life of value? I've heard more than one story recently about people doing short-term mission trips to Africa and finding the natives there to be ten times happier in their "sufferings" than we are in our luxuries. I think we're missing the boat somewhere.

And on a personal level, I'm applying the concepts to my summer. I told my daughter the other day how disappointed I am with myself at how little I'm getting done this summer that I wanted to get done. She said, "Why did you want to get stuff done? It's summer break -- you're supposed to take a break." So, now I'm vacillating between worrying about the lack of ambition this comment shows in my daughter and pride in the perspective on life this shows in my daughter. I don't know what's "right" anymore!

Which is kind of the point of the book . . . who says one way or the other is "right"? Well, as a Christian, I would say the Bible's take on the issue is right, but I can't come up with any scriptural principles at the moment that apply. But I'm sure there are some. I'll have to think about that some more . . .

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