Thoreau and “Artificial Time”: How Our Busy Lives Make Us Lose Grip on Reality
“This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work.
Take a second and think about your last long “break” — from school, work, or whatever you normally do. Did your sense of time feel strange or out of the ordinary?
When we’re liberated from our normal obligations, time tends to feels “meshed” into a continuous flow rather than a series of parcelized occurrences. Most of the time, however, we never feel this flow. When we know we must show up to work at 9AM or hop in our cars 15 minutes before rush hour traffic, we lose a sense of agency over time. We become subjected to its constraints and submit ourselves to slavishly obey the clock: an artificial invention designed to quantify time.
Recording time is, of course, a necessary way for us to live in a modern society. Without it, we would not be able to smoothy participate in the systems which govern our current way of life.
But is this relationship with time natural? Could this uniform obedience to the clock actually be causing unprecedented anxiety and dissatisfaction in our society?
In Walden, Thoreau spent two years living alone in the woods, where he pondered this exact question and came to some profound conclusions about modern life.
His recluse lifestyle and “break” from busy east coast society made him realize that most people lacked something needed to live an authentic life; it wasn’t money, fame, or friends, but time. His experience, he believed, made him rich with one thing most people would never acquire if they continued to live without ever unplugging from society.
This absence of artificial time made him feel alive; he sat on his porch listening to the sounds of nature for hours, stopping only after he felt too hungry to continue, and scheduled his chores around natural occurrences like a summiting afternoon sun or the chilly breeze he felt once it started to set.
Thoreau surmised that this was the ideal relationship humans should have with time. To him, it felt infinitely more natural, evidenced by the way Native Americans described time.
“ I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backwards for yesterday, forward for to-morrow, and overhead for the passing day”.
He criticized the palpable restlessness that characterized “normal” American life, caused partly by an obsession with punctuality and a restless desire to achieve financial success.
Thoreau’s idea that people’s jobs make them lose a sense of mastery over time resonated in the age he was writing in. In the 1840’s, the industrialization of the economy was almost complete and it had dramatically ended the previous era financial self-reliance most Americans experienced. Gone were the days where a Yeomen farmer could get up at dawn and tend to his property before spending some time for leisure– this was the beginning of wage labor, and the conformity to bureaucracy that it produced.
If Thoreau thought his culture was bad, he would be appalled at the absurd pace of life that modern white collar professionals experience. Smart phones and email have made everyone constantly “available ” to respond to hourly developments in whatever project they are apart of. To do is is often mandated by bosses, but even when it isn’t it would put a worker at a professional disadvantage to not always be plugged in. Someone else will, and they would quickly gain more “respect” for doing so.
Thoreau hated that, too– how so many Americans “respected” the act of putting in long hours. Since hard work was worshipped by the Puritan and free market society that came to develop in the United States, Thorueau found himself a frequent target by snarky neighbors who saw his lifestyle as alien and degrading.
[My lifestyle] was sheer idleness to my fellow townsmen, no doubt; but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting”
It’s funny how this uniquely American view of “idleness” has persisted, or perhaps gotten worse, to this day. Most college students, for example, pack their summers with resume enhancing activities, nab a full time job as quickly as possible upon graduation, and take their two weeks vacation a year upon adulthood.
Perhaps if we made ourselves more comfortable with the idea of living a few weeks or months without serious responsibility and embraced the “boredom” of not always having something to do, we’d calm that inner puritan within us all and achieve a level of spiritual freedom that Thoreau wrote about in those famous months in the woods.