A month after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, a debate raged about the responsibilities of those of us turned safely inside. For those privileged enough to find their calendars suddenly cleared, what should we do with all this newfound time? Should we perfect our baking skills? Learn another language? Launch a business?
But in her article for Wired, writer Laurie Penny took issue with those “lucky enough to be able to shelter in place” who were “using that time to launch podcasts and personal projects and life-hack [their] way to some cargo-cult pastiche of normality.” In her essay, Penny defiantly opposed the idea that we were most optimized when we were most productive.
“‘Productivity,’” she argued, “is not a synonym for health, or for safety, or for sanity.”
In theory, I might have agreed with Penny. But busy had always been the most recognizable version of me. Like almost everyone, I counted motion as meaning. While I was getting things done, I felt useful to the world—even to God.
So, in the spring of 2020, I doubled down on time-management strategies. I read more books. I made longer lists. I cleaned every closet in the house, all in the effort to stem the tide of time-anxiety, a word to name the panic attached to modernity’s scarcest resource.
I felt worse and worse and worse.
Of the many traumas the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted on the world, its disruption to our experience of time is certainly one. Years have been entirely eclipsed from memory, time now cleaved into the before and the after. If for one brief and hallowed moment, we gained a sense of time as something to receive, not manage—perhaps also to suffer.
In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor recounts the story of the past 500 years, when we began to tell time differently than the ancients and the medievals. In part, the “secular” story is how all time became ordinary time. According to Taylor, since 1500, a shifting conception of time has given way to a rise in what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism.” This brave, new, modern world of ours has been drained of transcendent, otherworldly purpose.
We don’t grant the existence of God, much less our obligations to him. Today, the only time we owe is to ourselves: to our careers, to our picture-perfect families, to our bucket lists. This accounts, in large part, for our time-devotedness—or perhaps we should say time-greed.
Just as there once was sacred space (in the medieval cathedrals, for example), there was also once sacred time. Kairos time, as the Greeks called it: this time existing beyond the veil of a day and the standardized unit of an hour. In fact, prior to the Reformation, we looked to the monks and nuns to renounce earthly pleasures and commit themselves to prayer. They lived the Lord’s time for the rest of us.
Today, of course, no one really lives the Lord’s time. All we’re left with is chronos time and the successive moments “which we try to measure and control in order to get things done,” Taylor says. All we’re left with is ordinary time—and the relentless goad of productivity. The untested assumption today is that getting things done is an infallible good, never mind the relative worth of those “things” and the predictable irritability involved in the striving.
Perhaps one of the most important discipleship endeavors today is reforming our relationship with time—and encouraging practices of living time more fittingly, more faithfully, more joyfully, more hopefully. The habits of “higher time” don’t have much to do with traditional time management advice, tips and tricks, or techniques and tools.
There is an important difference between improved executive functioning—and the practice of time-faith.
Habits of higher time have little to do with time-savvy. Calendaring may be involved, but mostly these habits involve a “labor of vision,” to borrow a phrase from another writer. Despite our best efforts at productivity, our lives will fog, and then evaporate, like winter breath. We will die.
As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field” (Isa. 40:6, ESV throughout). We will not finish all we’ve begun, will not accomplish all we’ve intended. Life will chill, the days shorten, and our bodies will catch in death’s wind and fall like autumn leaves.
Dust to dust. We will get no second chances on mortal time and its gifts.
If we fail to see time stretching beyond the final shudder, beyond the final slow wheeze of life, we are people to be pitied.
Jesus told a story about a man like this, a man without appreciation of eternity (Luke 12:16–21). He was a man whose entire life had been so entirely devoted to the accumulation of wealth that he’d postponed even the pleasures of enjoying it. After the rich man finally entered the golden years of retirement, putting up his feet poolside, somewhere in south Florida, he stretched out his hand to seize his first moment of peace: “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (v. 19). That man, Jesus said, was a fool. He didn’t know the measure of time, didn’t know what would suffer loss—and what would last.
Habits of higher time require important unlearning: about time as instrument, about time as aspiration, about time as commodity, something to spend and waste. Habits of higher time don’t seek efficiency at all costs, especially as its project involves the slow growth of wisdom. Higher time invites each of us into a different imagining of time, which is to say the generous sweep of heavenly time, where God’s will is being done without delay or haste.
In the kingdom of productivity, the goal is to get more and more done in less and less time. Speed is success. In the kingdom of heaven, by contrast, there is no cheating the time it really takes: to visit the widow, to welcome the outcast, to cultivate a vocation, to tend a marriage, to raise a child, to nurture a friendship, to grow a deeply formed life.
In the world of heavenly time, which remains rather indifferent to the urgent ticking of the clock, we are free to be still, free to be small, free to take refuge in the one who was and is and ever will be God.
Jen Pollock Michel is the author of five books, including In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, December 2022), from which this piece is adapted.