EVERY nation has been the slave of some besetting idea. The Egyptians were slaves to the idea of life after death, the Greeks to the idea of beauty, the Romans to that of conquest, the Mediævals to that of the Church, the Germans to that of autocracy, our fathers to that of money.
We are slaves to the idea of time.
Time is the tyrant of our lives. It is the one god we serve implicitly, universally, exclusively. Art we slight, poetry we abandon, religion we pass by. Health we neglect, beauty we disdain, love we mock. But time we worship.
Time prescribes our every act and deed. We dare not move without consulting Time. Our fathers took Time by the forelock; but Time takes us by the forelock, and he spares us very few of its hairs.
Cartoonists still portray Time as a doddering old man, with an hour-glass and a scythe. But cartoonists cling notoriously to the obsolete. Anyone else would paint him in the fulness of his youth, with a stop-watch for keeping tabs on us, and a machine-gun to mow us down.
There are some people, it is true, who grow up with the notion that their time is their own. If there is anything, they argue, which is free, it is time. Time, they aver, is to be had in abundance and without stint. But the maturer they grow, and the further they progress, the more they appreciate that, when it comes to time, they are poverty-stricken. For time is the most precious thing in the world.
Wherever possible, we reduce all things to a time basis. Time is our prime standard of measurement — and, in these days, there is nothing we do not measure. The time-variable has crept into every equation of our existence. We can hardly state a thought or a conclusion without bringing in the element of time. The scientist has recently smuggled the time-factor even into Newton’s law of gravitation.
We eat by time, sleep by time, work by time, play by time. We record our accomplishments, not in terms of pleasure, or of permanence, or of satisfaction, but in terms of time. We plan our futures, not according to friends, or happiness, or whim, but with reference to our supply of time.
We even measure the distance from this town to that, not by the number of roses along the wayside, or by the sweet thoughts which have coursed through our minds on the journey. We do not measure distance even in miles. — certainly not: miles to us are as nothing; we measure it in hours, minutes, and seconds.
When we wish to talk about accomplishment without whispering the august name of time, we refer, but with almost equal reverence, to efficiency. Efficiency, being a standard of measurement, in addition to being the high priest of time, is popular. In fact, efficiency is probably the most popular abstract thing we have.
Efficiency is fondly regarded in the American mind as the greatest contribution of this age to civilization. It is deemed an agency for good, a thing one cannot, have too much of. And so, since procrastination is the thief of time, we make efficiency the policeman who catches the thief. Or, to put it into technical phraseology, efficiency is what you did do, divided by what you would have done provided you had grown up smarter than you are.
Efficiency is a lightning calculator, by which you may convert time into anything you like, and read the answer in percentages, to the third decimal place. By its means, for example, you may change minutes into dollars, which is, after all, the thing most of us are trying to do.
Time, indeed, is money, as our forebears were fond of saying. But we have gone a step beyond that: we have learned that money is time.
Yet there is danger in these glib conversions. Money is a tangible thing. The more you save, the more you have. But time is far more subtle stuff. Saving it does not imply having it. As soon as a man seriously starts saving time, make up your mind that he will no longer have a moment to spare.
Time, not money, is our be-all and our end-all. Time is the thing each one of us is working for, praying for, and making his money for. The almighty dollar is giving way to the almighty minute. Doubtless a fitting retribution has overtaken the old lady who declared that the only thing time was good for was to rent houses by.
Ask the man of the hour for anything tangible, and you will find him generous. Ask him for his time, and you will find him a churl.
If the business man sees a device for saving time, he will have it, at all costs. All great inventions of this age have been time-saving inventions. They are great inventions because they save time. These uncanny contrivances machinate to accomplish in minutes what formerly took us hours, or even days. (Paradoxically, the more timesaving inventions you have about, the less time you have to spare; but that is beside the point.)
We do not call, we telephone. It is so much quicker. We do not travel, we telegraph. It does not take so long. We do not pen our missives, as of yore, polishing, perfecting, and aiming at elegance, spinning each thought into a cunning phrase, weaving each phrase into an intricate pattern, and embroidering the finished fabric with wellturned figures and cadences. Far from it. We spill our half-digested ideas into a rubber spout. This conducts them into a machine. The machine pours them again into the ear of a girl, who lets them run instanter out through her finger-tips into another machine, where they solidify into print at the rate of two words a second.
The letter is scaled by machine, stamped by machine, and addressed by machine. It drops a dozen stories in a mail-chute, is collected by automobile, postmarked automatically, and carried by aeroplane to its destination. It is again postmarked by machine, delivered by machine, and slit open by machine. A machine-like secretary places it on the desk of its recipient, or, to save him quarter of a minute, tosses it into the waste-paper basket, whence it is collected, baled by machine, crushed into pulp by machine, and machined into paper again, ready to start afresh on its endless cycle. The process is infinitely more complicated than in the days of the stage-coach or the pony express; but think of the time that you save!
What becomes of the time you save, no one can tell, not even our newfangled time-study artists. For, although we have learned a great deal about saving time, we have learned little or nothing about spending it.
Despite its recent origin, the effect upon the world of the Time Idea has been incalculable. More material progress has taken place in the past century than in all the rest of history put together.
This process of progress has the same kaleidoscopic quality observable in the cinematograph, which, by-the-bye, is another of the marvelous time-saving inventions which consume the few free moments still remaining to us. Let us watch this progress of humanity, era after era, each change gradual, lumbering, slow, every accomplishment attained only at the expense of the greatest suffering and travail. But look! Now, as we get toward the end of the nineteenth century, we notice a marked quickening of the tempo. All at once, the speed becomes greater and greater, until at last, as the film races past the lens, one can hardly follow the breakneck antics on the screen. It is as if the motion-picture operator, growing weary of the plot, were turning the crank at double-quick, in his anxiety to conclude the performance.
What makes him turn so furiously? Why does he hasten the picture to a close? A discussion of these questions might prove interesting; but time will not permit.
The universe, in these days, is stepping lively, please. The world spins faster than it used to. Into one lifetime we concentrate ten lifetimes. The problem the American sets himself is to see, not how much he can get out of life, but how much he can get into it.
It is a killing pace. It changes boys into men at seventeen, makes men middle-aged at thirty-five, and brings on old age at five-and-fifty. Old age, indeed, like carpet slippers and wooden Indians, has gone out of fashion. There are no old men about you. They, like other obsolete machinery, have been relegated to the scrap-heap.
It is a killing pace, but we must keep it up, or fall and be trampled on. The struggle for self-preservation in America is fierce and merciless. It is a grim struggle. It tingles with electricity. Men revel in it. It stimulates them to the point of intoxication. It spurs them to an effort so intense that it at last becomes an end in itself. It is the thing they live for.
Not satisfied with obtaining a competence for themselves, they aspire to take away the share falling to others, so that the resulting unbalance makes competition keener than before.
This is the thing we know as business. Business is not a part of American life; it is American life. The American business man devotes 1440 minutes a day to business. Before daybreak, an alarm-clock wrests him from his fitful business dreams. He gulps down business news along with his eggs and coffee. He plans business on his way to the office. His morning is spent in reading business, dictating business, and talking business. He keeps a business engagement for luncheon. Afterwards, he rushes back to business, where he routes himself, schedules himself, and despatches himself, as if he thought he were an express train.
After everyone else has left the office, he wraps up his business, and carries it home in a brief-case. He arrives late, sits down to dinner, and stares glassily into space, conjuring up phantoms of business. A business acquaintance interrupts his preoccupied meal, by calling him on the telephone. Ten minutes later he returns to the table, too distraught to eat, and discusses business with his wife. He spends the evening poring over budgets, reports, and tradepublications. He goes, at last, to bed, which is, he finds, the most efficient place of all in which to work out business problems.
He has no friends but business friends, no interests but business interests. He spends his little span saving time, in order that he may put forth more energy in a further attempt to save more time, and so on, until he has not a minute left to bless himself with. His whole existence is one unremitting race against time.
From this tremendous acceleration of life, the American has no escape. Not one of us can quarantine himself against the mania for speed. There is nothing we have not sacrificed in pursuit of our time-serving ideals. We have, even now, enacted the prohibition of our last respite, that we may save time more zealously. It is no more possible for us to resist the Time Idea than it is for the characters on the film to retard the speed of its reproduction.
It is all the trend of evolution, and there is no use trying to stop it. One would be less successful than Joshua, in his similar attempt.
And so we shall continue to be hustled through lunch-rooms and herded through caféterias, until we become chronic dyspeptics. We shall be badgered with telegrams, bombarded with ‘extras,’ and bawled at by bell-boys, until we fall victims to nervous prostration. We shall be battledored in elevators and shuttlecocked in subways, joggled in taxicabs, jostled in street cars, and jolted in Pullmans, until we succumb to apoplexy. And we shall be kept everlastingly on the go until, arriving at last at our untimely destination, we are shipped off in a sixty-horsepower hearse to the only peaceful place we have ever known. For thus we shall have served the god of Time.