Time to take our time

Looking to the future is important--and veryAmerican--but living in the present is vital

THE SEPTEMBER 11 TERRORIST ATTACKS forced awareness of a new enemy at our nation's gates. It also made me aware of an old enemy: time, or, more specifically, our collective development of a distorted perspective of time. We are a nation out of temporal balance, one trapped in a perpetual "time crunch." Americans report feeling increasingly busy, not having enough time to do everything necessary in their hectic lives. We work harder and longer than ever before without rest, despite all our time-saving home devices and services. This makes us angry about having to wait for anything and irritated at those who keep us on hold. So to complete our extensive daily to-do lists, we cut down on "nonessential" activities, such as attending church, participating in family rituals and relaxing with friends.

Paradoxically, modern technology has contributed to this temporal imbalance by championing nanosecond efficiency, a model that has seeped across the once impermeable boundary between work and home. We work at home as hard as we do at work and take work on the road because we must be efficient to achieve our goals, to have successful careers, to make it.

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Time perspective is the mind's way of parsing the flow of human experience into zones of past, present and future. In an optimally balanced time perspective, these components blend and flexibly engage, depending on a situation's demands and our needs and values. A positive past orientation connects us with our roots, heritage, family, religion and national rituals. It gives us a sense of stability, of our self over time; it's where positive self-esteem is nourished. A future orientation gives us wings to soar to new destinations, to seek new challenges and opportunities by envisioning scenarios of possible future selves. A present time perspective allows spontaneity, sensation seeking, openness to novelty, being in the moment and fully experiencing and expressing emotions.

In the era before 9/11, this fundamental temporal triad had reached a tipping point for many Americans. Excessive future orientation left little mental functioning to appreciate the virtues and values of the past and present. Our capitalist corporate mentality gave dominance to a future-oriented time perspective, ruled by abstract mental manipulations of cost-benefit analyses, probabilities and contingent planning.

But something wonderful seems to be emerging from the ashes of the World Trade Center, from the suffering and heroism we have all witnessed together. Our priorities may be shifting away from the socially isolating selfishness of an exclusive focus on future success and making money. We are reaching out with a collective compassion for our fellow human beings, breaking out of our self-centeredness to make time for family and friends. We are volunteering our services, donating our blood and money to make a difference in our national recovery. I hope this reordering of priorities will not be a transient experience. Perhaps this break from standard time will sensitize many to the deep significance of family and social support, the comforting guidance of religion and the ultimate value of embracing the joys and wonders of existence.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if America's response to 9/11 were to reinvent itself as an even stronger nation, one with renewed civic engagement and an awareness of the fragility and preciousness of every human life? Developing and sustaining an optimally balanced time perspective is crucial for making such changes endure in our psyches and actions. Yes, work hard when there is a mission to be accomplished. But play hard when the work is done. Permit self-pleasures and embrace social connectedness. And remember to honor the past; it contributes wisdom and stability to our root values.


Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at Stanford University and the President of the American Psychological Association. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., will return in a future "Just Think About It."

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