Keeping Time Our Servant

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by Mary Jo Shannon

As we begin a new year, my fascination with the concept of time is reawakened. Many years ago I had the privilege of interviewing the late Harry Race, retired engineer and professor at Virginia Western Community College. The purpose of the interview was to learn about his hobby, collecting and repairing clocks, but I found that his real obsession was his fascination with the concept of time itself.

“What is Time? Nobody knows. It can’t be perceived by any of the senses. You can’t see it, hear it, touch it, smell or taste it, yet it can be measured more precisely than any material substance. You can’t define it without referring to its measurement.” he said, and I was intrigued. So much so that I spent ten years researching, collecting information related to this enigma.

Throughout the centuries, mankind has focused on dividing time into smaller and smaller segments in order to manage it completely. Modern life – everything from the colored lights that direct traffic to space craft navigation – depends on the accuracy of time measurement.

Our technological world demands this precise timekeeping. All modern transportation — space ships, airplanes, trains, ocean-going vessels — depend upon accurate time signals to prevent accidents and to coordinate schedules.  Navigators of ships in the air or on the sea put their faith in signals from satellites accurate to a microsecond to plot their location.  NASA’s space probes are guided by radio signals timed to nanoseconds.

All modes of communication require this precise timing, too.  Radio and television stations use atomic clocks to time broadcasts.  According to NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) scientist David Allan, if the  workers at the NIST laboratories took the day off  “we would lose all radio, television and data transmission.  In short, we would shut down the world. We [at NIST] are responsible for the generation of the second in the U.S.  We generate time.”

If you think this sounds complicated and difficult to understand, you are not alone!  As technology increases the gap grows wider between ordinary people who use the marvelous new products and the scientists and technicians who create them.  This can have a profound effect on our lives.

In Colonial America, people made all their clothing — from shearing the sheep to sewing the clothes.  They made their candles, bread, houses — everything. Yet they seemed to have time for games and reading and weddings that lasted for several days.  Today, we have a multitude of timesavers — microwaves, automatic washers, airplanes, just to name a few. Yet we never seem to have enough time.

Ironically, the effort to control time and make it our servant seems to have backfired.  In our modern, technological age, we have become slaves to the clock.  Our constant race with time creates stress, which in turn contributes to a great number of physical and emotional problems.

Scientists have learned that our bodies entrain to the rhythm of life about us.  When the tempo increases, we go right along with it.  Perhaps your toes have begun to tap when a band is playing, keeping time with the music. You are entrained to the music.

Before the mechanical clock was invented, and even for several centuries afterward, people were entrained to the rhythms of nature, or natural time. Life was planned around the rising and setting of the sun, the cycles of the moon and the seasons of the year.

The mechanical clock created artificial, clock time.  The clock does not depend upon movement of the planet, but ticks out the same seconds, minutes, and hours, whether it is day or night.  For over seven centuries, people did not have great difficulty keeping the two times in sync.  Gradually, more people moved to urban areas where they worked in factories.  The tempo of life increased.  Time became a commodity, something to be bought and sold.  Once workers punched the time clock, their time belonged to the factory owner.  “Time is money; don’t waste it!” became a rule to live by.  Factory managers concentrated on ways to increase efficiency, producing more in less time.

Electric lights made it possible to operate the factories around the clock, with three eight-hour shifts.  Workers on the evening shifts had to adjust to a different schedule, creating stress — physical, mental and emotional.  Family schedules had to be adjusted, spreading the stress to wives and children.

Just as the clock ushered in the Industrial Revolution, the computer has ushered in a new Technological Revolution. Change occurs so rapidly it is difficult for people to adjust and the gap continues to widen between computer time and natural time.  E-mail allows friends and family to keep in touch throughout the world.  Business conferences can be held online while all those involved remain in their own offices. But it’s difficult for persons to relate to one another without face-to-face encounters.

Technology provides a better life in many ways, including advances in medical procedures, food production and education, to name a few.  But the downside is losing touch with the natural world.  What can we do to keep time our servant?  The answer may lie in learning to “take time out.”  We must consciously limit the time we spend on the computer or watching television and set aside time to allow ourselves to entrain to the natural world. Camping (without electronics!) is one activity that makes this possible.  Planting flowers or vegetables and watching their development also help us keep in touch with nature. Participating in active sports instead of watching TV or playing video games constantly will help us develop physically and socially.

Do one thing at a time.  Don’t try to read and watch television or listen to a ball game on the radio at the same time.  Research shows that you will remember more when you concentrate on one thing at a time.  Learn to slow down.  If you feel rushed, close your eyes and take a deep breath.

Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen, founder of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, calls this downshifting, like shifting gears on an automobile to go more slowly.  Sometimes we need to be in high gear, using a lot of energy to accomplish work.  But our bodies also need a slower pace at times so we can relax. Too often we rely on medication to cure the physical and emotional problems brought on by stress.

The beginning of the year is a good time to examine our activities and decide which are most important and to allow time for this “downshifting” to keep us healthy in this modern age.  Only then will we regain control of our lives, keeping time as our servant in lieu of our master.