July 3, 2012

Have you ever started to tell someone something, but felt like they weren’t giving you their full attention? Maybe they were in a hurry to go somewhere? Maybe they just didn’t think your story was that interesting? Or maybe they couldn’t force themselves to do just one thing – listen – and had to find something else to keep their hands busy?

We seem to be moving into an age where time feels like its running through our fingers. We are living longer than ever and yet we complain, “There’s never enough time. Where did it go?” If this rings a bell, you might dig deeper into this. You could read Tim Kreider’s “The ‘Busy’ Trap” (NY Times, 30 June 2012), but if you have a bit more time, I recommend a leisurely stroll through Michael Ende’s Momo, a fairy tale about a not-so-strange battle over time.

The two sides in Momo seem very ill-matched. On one side are the powerful, but barely noticeable, grey men. They are the agents of the Time Savings Bank. Their skin is grey, they wear grey suits, they drive grey cars, and they smoke grey cigars. Their job is to persuade an unsuspecting populace to stop dawdling and get busy. Every “deposit” in the Time Savings Bank increases their power. On the other side, there is a young orphan girl named Momo. She is assisted by a tortoise who can see 30 minutes into the future and an elusive other-worldly character, Professor Hora, who understands the secret of where time comes from. Momo, however, bears the responsibility of confronting the grey men and putting the Time Savings Bank out of business.

If you are scratching your head at this point over how such a fanciful tale can be relevant to your very real problems, consider this. The offer that the Time Savings Bank makes to its unsuspecting patrons is one that you have probably already faced: if you can do a daily task, say shave your chin or legs in 5 minutes instead of 10, you save 5 minutes. If you do that every day for a week, you save 35 minutes. Do this every week for a year and you’ve saved 30.4 hours, more than a day. If you can shorten your dog’s daily walk from 10 minutes to 5, you can save another 30.4 hours this year. And if you can shorten your child’s nighttime get-into-bed routine by another 5 minutes per night, you can save 30.4 hours more. Three simple changes and your savings add up to 91.2 hours, almost FOUR ENTIRE DAYS, of living in one year.

But that’s just the beginning, right? As the Bank’s agents point out, there are many opportunities for saving time every day, and many ways to do multiple things at the same time. Don’t you want to be saving time, they ask? The question seems to answer itself so it won’t surprise you that every adult in this story answers it the same way.

Only Momo is indifferent to the appeal of “saving time.” Her role in society is to be a patient listener, an attentive witness to whatever is going on around her. If a friend stops by to tell her a story, she won’t suddenly stop listening 5 minutes before the story is finished. So she lives life according to the shape it takes rather than trying to squeeze it into smaller bits.

And what about us, the people caught in the middle? How often do we tell ourselves that we wish we had more time? How often do we try to do things more quickly or try to do two or three things at once? Are these intrinsically bad behaviors? Maybe, maybe not. It is unbelievably easy to let them become a habit. If we get used to speeding up here (shaving), we may not even notice that we are also speeding up there (paying attention to our children at bedtime). When the time we have now becomes a curse, not a blessing, and when we prefer to shortchange our friendships now in order to save time for ourselves in some distant future, the grey men can lean back on their cars and smoke their cigars because Momo is a fictional character and no one will be coming to our rescue.


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