Time Is Of The Essence

Jan 28, 2012 | Uncategorized

Who was ever heard to utter on their deathbed “I wish that I had spent more time at the office?”
Most of us will ruefully reflect that insufficient time had been spent with our families and with the ones we love or in doing the things that we know give real worth or definition and meaning to our lives.
At both a personal and institutionalised level we need to provide people with more time, more space in which their humanity might flower.
Yet if you take documents like the E.U. Directive on working time, 99% of which governs the number of hours that people have to work, and details the agreements which must be made between employers and employees concerning the number of consecutive working days that they would be required to work, you can see that time is not on the side of ordinary men and women and their families.
People may be required to work as long as 12 days at a time and then they can have 2 days rest at the end of this two-week period. What regulations of this sort seem to take little account of is the impact on families having time with one another at the same time.
Of course, it’s not just the E.U. who have got this wrong.
Winston Churchill once remarked that Sunday is the greatest of all our British institutions. It was the greatest of our days, a time when families would be together, when very few people had to work, and when those who wished to could set aside time to practice their faith. Most importantly this day of rest allowed people to spend time together.
Since the abolition of Sunday as a special day, 800,000, mainly low paid women, now work on Sundays. Although there is a conscience clause, it’s pretty worthless, because people who are not prepared to work on Sundays simply don’t get the jobs. They don’t get promoted and they don’t get to stay in the job if they are not prepared to comply with what their employers want.
So the combination of EU Directives and British made laws means that men and women have to work for days on end, without a break, and then have two days off. Perhaps those days will be a Wednesday and a Thursday. Your husband or wife, or your close friend, meanwhile, can have their days off on a Monday and a Tuesday. And your children, who are at school during the week can have off Saturday and Sunday…… and you see the point, no one is home at the same time as anybody else.
Napoleon tried a 10 day week, Stalin secularised Sundays and workers were forced into unremitting work patterns. By 1929 Moscow workers were driven to write these words as graffiti on walls: “What do we have families for.”
Such were the working hours and the endless days that they were being forced to work.
The Government admits that “some firms do coerce staff into working excessive hours”. But legislation has simply made the situation worse.
Unless we fix working patterns we will see a disastrous further erosion of the time which people can have with their children. Our country becomes the “Servile State” described by Hilaire Belloc in 1911.
Without making time for the things that matter we neglect to do little things – the things which strengthen relationships and allow for healing when things have gone wrong. That’s when time can truly be the great healer.
Children understand that their parents have to work but they need to have days and periods of time when they are together. The flickering box in the corner is no substitute for the flickering hearth at the heart of home.
Family life is crippled by lack of shred time, by lack of conversation. It is decimated by atomised living, time no longer spent around the table in shared meals. Meals are too often spent with trays balanced on knees in front of the flickering box. Eating together over Sunday lunch should particularly be a shared moment but if a parent is forced to work then even this shared time disappears.
In America I have seen a bumper sticker which says, “I shop therefore I am.” Materialism, and all that it represents, is one of the greatest curses on our families today. Presents or presence, we can give things but they are only things. We can provide all sorts of boxes wrapped up in the most glamorous of paper but ultimately it is only so much trash if we don’t give ourselves through some kind of personal presence: the gift of time being the best presence of all.
Einstein said that if you want your child to be a genius then read to them. Aristotle said that no parent should entrust his child to some foolish storyteller.
The omnipresent flickering box can too often be a foolish storyteller – certainly when it isn’t rationed or used with discernment. And what better way of showing your love for your child than reading to them the great imaginative stories which create narrative in which they can live?.
Reading to your child, spending time with your young child, repays itself in so many ways; introducing your child to good influences and good pursuits is crucial.
Putting the flickering box – the foolish storyteller – into a child’s bedroom is an extension of the problem: it’s like abandoning your child to the clutches of a stranger. They rapidly get the message that you don’t really care what they see or what they do.
One sixteen-year-old girl in Liverpool said to me “I feel like a stranger in my own home.” She was talking about she was surrounded by flat screens, computers and every desirable piece of new technology but no one gave her time. They weren’t a family, they were not in communication with one another.
By contrast I returned to visit a school in which I worked in the early 1970’s in Kirkby. In those days it had the highest child ratio per head of population in Western Europe. Kirkby is on the outskirts of Liverpool. Sadly, the school was closing because families were no longer having sufficient children to keep it open. People are increasingly told it’s better not to have a child – they’ll cost too much and take too much of your time.
Too often a child is now seen as a problem rather than as a blessing.
But not everyone has bought that canard.
During my visit to that closing school a man came over to me clutching a young child under one arm with another child holding his hand. He asked if I remembered teaching him? “Do you remember introducing me to C.S. Lewis’ books?” he asked. “I’ve loved those books ever since and I’m reading them now to my own child.” It reminded me how we must pass on what we treasure from one generation to generation – and whether as a parent or as a teacher, make the time to do it.
Spend time with a child walking or gardening or in leisure pursuits of any kind, that’s when you transmit skills, it’s when you transmit values. If you don’t have that time then how can you transmit the things you say you care about? Time spent around a table, is time when you can have discussions about what is going on in the world today.
Time is of the essence.
The way we structure our lives must leave time for friendship and time to for our spiritual needs. We are helped in this by the pattern of feasts and around the rhythm of the church calendar. It can give meaning and sense to our lives.
If we structure our lives and use our time properly it will give us fulfilled lives; especially in our relationships with our children or parents.
Remember, if your child is ten today then they will have already have lived 3650 days. That leaves 2920 before childhood is over – and it goes faster than we ever envisage.
I have been amazed in watching my own children grow up just how quickly time passes. I will never regret or resent the time I have spent with them but I do regret the time I have to spend away, the time I spend doing other things. I try to rationalise it; I try to explain the importance of it; why I have to do it; but I also recognise that it is a loss to them and to me.
We live in a society that has 800,000 children who have no contact with their fathers: that’s a society heading for disaster. I often wonder whether some of that separation might have been avoided if only people had been less pressurised and had the time necessary to sort out conflicts and crises that ended in separation.
This social dislocation has resulted in far too many young people drifting along without values and without any coherent sense of their own worth, without any sense of assurance or love in their lives.
We are all familiar with the parable of the lost son; for too many today we need a parable for the lost fathers. We also need a society which recognises the central importance of relationships, friendships, and of the time which is needed to foster the ties which bind.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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