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In contemporary western societies, many people believe they suffer from a lack of time. In fact, a majority of people seem stuck in a time-devouring daily routine.
The French sometimes call it “Metro, boulot, dodo” (subway, work, sleep)—which takes all their energy and leaves behind the feeling that they have no time left. The sensation of lack of time frustrates and stresses us, and can leave us feeling overwhelmed in our fast-paced societies. Prayer and meditation can help, but we also need to understand some basic principles about time use in order to find peace and serenity.
As we all equally possess 365 days per year, 7 days per week and 24 hours per day, what determines the use that we make of our time? Why are some people able to do so much, while others cannot?
The first key point to understand: time is a matter of choice. The Baha’i teachings say we have the power and the free will to choose our actions and therefore determine how to expend our time:
Certain matters are subject to the free will if man, such as acting with justice and fairness, or injustice and iniquity—in other words, the choice of good or evil actions. It is clear and evident that the will of man figures greatly in these actions. … For example, should he so wish, he can pass his days in praise of God, and should he so desire, he can occupy himself with that which is other than Him. He can light the candle of his heart with the flame of the love of God and become a well-wisher of the world, or he can become an enemy of all mankind or set his affections on worldly things; he can choose to be just or iniquitous. All these deeds and actions are under his own control, and he is therefore accountable for them. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 287-288.
Either within or outside the Baha’i community, and especially when we try to expand the community building activities, we always hear things such as “This is so great! I really wish that I could be part of this but I don’t have the time.” This kind of statement can reflect two types of realities. The first one concerns people overwhelmed with important life challenges and concerns. Even with the strongest will in the world, they cannot do otherwise. The second one is the most common one, the case of people living a “normal life”—not an empty and boring one, but also not one of permanent struggle. Let us examine these two cases.
Clearly, some people face special challenges at specific moments of their lives which require an important focus on their part. One of my neighbors who recently became a Baha’i has five children—the eldest is 8 years old and the youngest are triplets of 4 years old. Most of us cannot even imagine the amount of time and energy required to take care of a family like that. Everyone has challenges and preoccupations which legitimately take a lot of time from their lives—with some greater than others. In these specific cases, we can keep in mind two things.
First, these phases of life are very often limited—they do not last forever. My friend’s children will grow up and become more autonomous, students’ exams will come to an end, someone who works 60 hours a week will not occupy the same position during his or her whole life, and so on. Understanding this dynamic helps in overcoming frustration and accepting our role of focusing on something important during a specific period of time.
However, focusing on something doesn’t imply forgetting everything else. Sometimes, our efficiency in doing something is actually reinforced by our participation in another type of activity, especially service activities, which help us grow intellectually and spiritually and thus often have an almost-magical effect of positively impacting all the other aspects of our lives. We need the capacities we develop while serving others (such as perseverance, patience, flexibility, creativity, organization, a humble attitude of learning …) for almost everything we do. When we accept this idea, we are less likely to fall into the trap of waiting our whole life for the perfect circumstances to arise and give us the opportunity to serve, because we see how beneficial it is to include these activities in our busy schedule as much as we can.
Now if we move on from these kinds of extreme cases to those the majority of people face, we recognize that time is really a matter of choice, even if it doesn’t seem so initially. How is it possible that sometimes we have such a busy day that we can’t even find time to have lunch? Or that we have so much work to do that we don’t have the time to sleep? In spite of these vital needs, we are capable of prioritizing other things at any given point.
Choices are indeed conditioned by our priorities. Making clear in our minds what our priorities are can help us be more conscious and true to ourselves regarding the reasons we make decisions. We always find time for what we consider truly important; so instead of saying “I don’t have the time”, it would probably be more honest to say “I don’t give this much importance,” or “this is not my priority, so I really can’t make time for it.”
Now, just imagine if we set service to humanity as one of our priorities—or even as THE priority of our lives. What choices and attitude would this imply? What would we be ready to give up to be able to serve? What challenges does it raise? We’ll examine these questions in the next two essays in this short series.