I’ve never liked the idea of killing time – not even the expression. It seems so violent to be “killing” time. What harm did it do to you? In any case, it’s another way of saying “wasting” time, in my opinion, and the idea of wasting time for the sake of it has always rubbed me up the wrong way. As I get older the notion gets more and more troubling. It’s not as if there are a number of things I absolutely must accomplish before I die, or anything so foolish. I just hate the idea of sitting around doing nothing in particular because I am waiting for something important, or interesting, or whatever, to occur. Very puritanical of me, no doubt. I hate to waste time.
Let me be perfectly clear so you do not think of me as some kind of rabid Spartan. No matter what I am doing as long as I am enjoying myself, I do not consider that I am wasting my time. Furthermore, I might have something pressing to do and instead I am watching a favorite movie. It’s perfectly fair to say I am procrastinating, or avoiding my work. But I am not wasting my time. In my worldview, any pleasurable moments in my life are not wasted time.
Let me quote Kipling’s “If—“:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it . . .
When I was a schoolboy I was made to believe that Kipling was being a slave driver here. Every minute was “unforgiving,” it moved on relentlessly. Your task was to fill each one with “sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” But what is “distance run”? I expect Kipling meant productive work, or the like. But I’m all right with taking the idea that “distance run” means getting somewhere – anywhere – rather than nowhere. I’m not so puritanical as to believe that I have to be always making a buck, working on a cure for cancer, or reading a great book – that is, tangibly “good” things to do. I just feel the need to be engaged – always.
My fourth form (9th grade) English teacher, John Pearce, was an immense influence on me as a writer. His big thing was that to write well you had to read ALL THE TIME. But he didn’t care what we read. We could read comic books if we wanted; as long as we read. It was the act of engaging with the written word that was important. That’s how I approach “distance run.” I want my mind at work somehow or other, but I don’t particularly care how. When my mind is not engaged I feel as if I am wasting time or killing time. Wasting time always feels bad to me. Even so, it can happen, so I am putting measures in place to stop it before it happens.
For me the biggest potential for time wasting arises when I am waiting for something to happen. I can divide such times into those that are self imposed and those that are unavoidable. Unavoidable sitting and waiting is a fact of life everywhere, but the countries where I have lived for the past 6 years – Argentina, China, and Italy – have made it into an incredible art form. Argentina may be the worst of the three. I once had to see a doctor at a specialist hospital for a minor problem, and ended up spending 13 hours (6 am to 7 pm) at her clinic, of which time, being exceptionally generous, I calculate I spent around 80 minutes doing something connected with my medical care (including filling in forms). I spent 11 hours and 40 minutes sitting and waiting for something to happen. That was a marathon, but it is not uncommon in Buenos Aires to wait for an hour in line to pick up a package at the post office, and the like. Every day you have to wait for something. However this is unavoidable, and you just have to live with it.
I find the other kind of waiting, self-imposed waiting, especially annoying because I have no one to blame but myself. This kind of waiting occurs for me all the time because I hate to be late for things. If I have to meet you at a specified time, I’ll be there at least 10 minutes early (because I don’t want you to waste your time); I always arrive for a class I am teaching at least 15 minutes ahead of time; I routinely make every effort to be at the airport 3 hours before my flight is due to depart (doesn’t always work – I’ve missed a boatload of flights); and so on. The penalty for this kind of consideration and efficiency is a lot of slack time, and I only have myself to blame.
Whether I am to blame for time spent waiting, or someone else is, there is always something I can do about it, however. Here I find it important NOT to “kill” (i.e. waste) time, but to do something that makes me happy. There are obvious standbys like always having a book with me – very important at airports. Of more importance to me is always carrying a small notebook and pen. I get ideas for my writing all the time, and it’s good to jot them down before they get lost.
Furthermore, I like to have something to do all the time – reading, writing, photographing etc. That way I feel OK doing “nothing.” Here’s Pooh and Christopher Robin:
“What I like doing best is Nothing.”
“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.
“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.
It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”
“Oh!” said Pooh.”
Doing “nothing” is supremely important to me. I love it when I feel free to do “nothing” – staring out the window of a train or bus, lying in bed daydreaming, walking in the woods, etc. Doing “nothing” is the perfect opposite of killing time. Jerome K. Jerome starts out in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, by saying, in effect, that you can’t do nothing if you have nothing to do. Doing nothing requires that you have something else to do, and you are not doing it. Then it is endless pleasure. When I quite literally have nothing to do, I am in purgatory — just wasting time. When I have something to do and instead I am doing nothing, I am blessed.
To be continued . . .