The Common Good
March-April 2000

No More Multitasking

by Tom Montgomery-Fate | March-April 2000

Reclaiming the gift of time.

I recently came across a book titled 365 Ways to Save Time with Kids. The idiocy of this idea prompted me to substitute a more honest title: "How to Accelerate Your Kids’ Lives and Spend Less Time with Them Every Single Day."

What we usually mean when we say "save time" in our culture is "get more stuff done." Busy yet responsible parents are supposed to "make time" for their kids. But it often seems that my 2- and 5-year-old daughters make time for me. When they kneel wide-eyed on the sidewalk over an anthill, or chase lightning bugs in the cool lull between dusk and dark, or quietly monitor a robin sitting on its eggs in the crook of an elm tree, they make time for me. They pull me out of my ultra-compartmentalized productive time into an unmeasured creative time, which manifests the sanctity of nature’s relatedness—of God’s immense, delicate creation.

This is an example of what Dorothy Bass, in Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, might call the fullness of God’s time. In an intricate weave of social analysis, church history, biblical exegesis, poetry, and personal narrative, she explores the complex problem and promise of time in modern culture through the lens of the Christian faith. "Time resonates with meaning," she writes. The book then explores various Christian "practices" that will enable readers to re-imagine time in their lives as a process of meaning rather the product of corporate marketeers.

Beginning with the origin of the "clock"—the ringing of clocca (the bells that called Benedictine monks to prayer at set hours)—Bass explores the inherent relationships between one’s concept of time and how one practices his or her faith. She advocates letting go of a Protestant work ethic that continues to associate work with worth and to reward drivenness. Toward this end, one practice she espouses is reclaiming the Sabbath as an essential day of rest and freedom: "When we keep a Sabbath holy, we are practicing, for a day, the freedom that God intends for all people...practicing life outside the frantic pace set by financial markets and round the clock shopping venues...and practicing independence from the forces of injustice."

Another practice she explores is attuning one’s life to the rhythm of the Christian liturgical year, which "carries the content of our faith into present time, inviting us to experience the here-and-now in relation to a story that began before creation...." In this chapter Bass reflects on why Lent has recently become more popular: "The joy of being synchronized, literally ‘together in time,’ with other Christians is one reason. Another is our growing awareness that without a fast, it is hard to recognize a feast." Both of these practices reinforce one of Bass’s themes: Reclaiming God’s gift of time can lead to the restoration of community in a culture that worships the individual and self-reliance.

BUT MUCH OF THE book is also about how we can gain the awareness and the patience to even imagine altering our auto-piloted lives. "How can I offer attention to God and to other people in the midst of days that seem to be shredded into little fragments of time that I cannot control?" Bass wonders. How does one "make time" for work, family, and faith? Multitasking is one solution. During your early morning commute, talk your son through his homework on a cell phone while eating a McBreakfast, sipping strong coffee, listening to the New Testament on tape, and counting out 40 cents for the next toll. Bass contemplates why people who know that multitasking is both addictive and leads to multibeing—emotional and spiritual fragmentation—still do it.

She poses an alternative: Learn how to pay attention. The robin’s nest, anthills, and lightning bugs that our children notice represent the revelation of God’s love/time that we sprint by. In the chapter "Receiving This Day," Bass focuses on the significance of the present—the necessity of our presence to be aware of God’s. She includes a poem by Jane Kenyon, titled "Otherwise," that describes the concrete details of an ordinary day—a ripe peach, a walk in the woods, dinner with her husband, looking at the paintings on the wall. Kenyon has cancer and knows she will die soon, so after noticing and appreciating these ordinary things her refrain is always "It might have been otherwise"—she might not have been able to notice these ordinary things. And soon, it is "otherwise."

But Kenyon’s attentiveness to the present, to the ordinary details of her life, lends a sacred timelessness to that particular day. For decades, readers will still recognize and participate in her acute awareness of God’s gift of time, of life, of being. This kind of awareness points to the heart of Bass’s book: The time that matters most is not saved, spent, managed, or wasted, but lived. The fullness of God’s time is the place where one spontaneously recognizes that one also is a tiny but essential part of God’s wondrous relatedness, of the gift of Creation.

TOM MONTGOMERY-FATE is professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. His most recent book is Beyond the White Noise (Chalice Press, 1997).

Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time.. Bass, Dorothy C.. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 01/01/2000.

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