Why do human beings waste time?
Good question. “There’s no easy answer,” writes philosopher Sachiko Sakonji in President (November). Of course not. How can there be? What does “waste” mean? Do human beings waste time? One person’s wasted time is another person’s free time, and still another’s productive labor. What does a philosopher do? Think, study, teach, write, stare vacantly into space. In thinking mode, she’s indistinguishable from an arrant sluggard. “What are you doing?” “Thinking.” “About what?” She might be at a loss for an answer. Thoughts begin vague, amorphous, beyond words. Sometimes they end that way. Does her silence convict her? Surely not.
“Why,” muses Sakonji, “do we have time at all? – meaning the concept of time. Social life seems impossible without it, but our earliest human forebears, pre-society, didn’t have it, never dreamed of such a thing, and though far more idle than we are today, never wasted a moment, because there were no “moments” to waste. Lucky them!
Or take the opposite extreme. The task at hand absorbs your full attention and you lose track of time altogether, forget it exists. While you’re in that state it doesn’t exist. The task complete, you look around – it’s night; where did the morning go? Where all time goes – nowhere.
Japan is of two minds concerning time: Zen mind and (let’s say) rice-growing mind. Zen meditation is characterized as “sitting quietly doing nothing.” What for? Ask a Zen master that and you’re likely to get slapped for your pains – not as punishment but to teach you the vanity of the question. Don’t strangle the mind with purpose, is the message. Let it roam purposeless and free. There’s no knowing what it’ll draw from the void – the timeless void – whose name is freedom.
Between Zen Japan and workaholic Japan is an unbridgeable gulf – or maybe not. Isaiah Ben-Dasan (real name Shichihei Yamamoto, 1921-91), in his 1970 bestseller “The Japanese and the Jews,” writes, “No people on earth is as good (as the Japanese) at setting dates and, working back from them, establishing second-by-second schedules.” This goes back, in his analysis, to premodern times when 85 percent of the population grew rice. He quotes an old proverb: “One day’s delay means one month’s evil fortune.” The nature of the rice crop, and of Japanese seasons, are such that “inevitably typhoons come in harvest time; consequently, the rice seedlings must be planted in March, transplanted to the paddies during the rainy season, and harvested before the storms can spoil the crop.” There’s no time to waste. The Japanese were, and still are, perpetually running from “the fangs of Chronos” – the Father Time of Greek mythology.
We run ourselves ragged – what for? We work harder and harder to earn more and more money to buy more and more labor-saving devices to enjoy more and more leisure that slips through our fingers in the frantic pursuit of more and more. It’s crazy, no one can fail to see it, and yet we go on, Chronos in hot pursuit, chastising ourselves or being chastised for every “wasted” moment. Sakonji writes wistfully of her cats. She has 22, and they spend whole days at a time simply lying on the floor, not a flicker of a guilt feeling rippling through their neurons and rousing them to activity. Their food supply assured, they follow the Zen path. If they could only speak!
The British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote in 1946, “We have become, in certain respects, progressively less like animals.” Unlike Sakonji’s cats, we can reflect on past suffering and foresee future suffering. Russell continues: “The curbing of impulses to which we are led by forethought averts physical disaster at the cost of worry, and general lack of joy. I do not think the learned men of my acquaintance, even when they enjoy a secure income, are as happy as the mice who eat the crumbs from their tables.”
What should we do, then? Become cats? Become mice? Failing that, learn from them what a philosopher seems to have learned from hers: that there are better ways of being human than floundering like snared fish in a net of time.© Japan Today