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Let's take back our time

We work more hours than medieval peasants did.
By William J. Doherty
September/October 2004 9.1.04

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The Peterschmidts were on the modern American fast track until Margaret came down with pneumonia and was told by her doctor that she had to cut back for a month or two. Impossible, she concluded. With her part-time job, her kids' intense extracurricular schedules, and her husband's management work schedule, there was no time to be sick. Her doctor insisted, and Margaret started to take stock of her life.

During this period of soul-searching, Margaret attended a public forum that I facilitated on the problem of overscheduled kids and underconnected families. She realized what had happened to her family after they moved to their suburban community: the calls from neighbors warning her that she had to sign her son up quickly if he was not to lose out forever on a chance to play varsity hockey eight years later; the pervasive pressure to spend more to keep up the consumer lifestyle; and the importance of having the kinds of jobs that feed that consumer lifestyle. “Keeping busy” had become a measure of their lives.

Margaret and her husband Jeff soon decided to take the plunge into a radical contemporary lifestyle: one of balance, where the family ate dinner together, hung out together, got enough sleep, and filled in the extra spaces in their lives with sports, music, and hobbies. Jeff turned down a promotion that would require more travel and decided to go to work earlier in the day in order to be home for dinner. Margaret and Jeff decided to enroll their kids only in activities that allowed for dinner hours and did not take up most weekends. And Margaret joined the local “take back your family time” movement to advocate for saner family living and organizational schedules in a world that pulls families apart.


Welcome to the strange new world where being home for dinner is a radical act. For three decades a new spiritual and social justice issue has been arising in our culture and our congregations, but we've been too busy to notice it. It's the problem of time: over-work, over-scheduling, and a chronic sense of hurry. We have become the most productive and the most time-starved people on earth.

U.S. workers now work an average of nine full weeks more than European workers do. Sociologist Juliet Schor calculated that from 1973 to 2000 the average U.S. worker added 199 hours to his or her annual work schedule. We have the shortest paid vacations in the world, and in 2002 Americans gave back 175 million days of paid vacation to employers—time they already had coming. We work more hours than medieval peasants did. Interestingly, two disparate groups in the population are hit the hardest: managers who are forced to be married to their job, and the working poor who often have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet. The Microsoft effect and the Wal-Mart effect, if you will. In between are the millions of workers who are forced to work overtime hours they did not choose to contribute to their employer.

When we are not working, we are more hurried than ever before. According to a University of Michigan study, our children have lost large amounts of play time and unstructured outdoor time in the past few decades. Their structured sports time has doubled, but their meals at home have declined. Parents are spending more time shuffling kids to soccer and music lessons. And yet big increases in homework time have not been accompanied by improvements in learning.

Even adults who are not raising children report a chronic sense of hurry, according to time use researchers. We've turned being “busy” into a benign, expected experience—as witnessed by the jolly greeting “Keeping busy?” The correct answer is “Yes, of course.”

This is deeper and broader than out-of-whack individual lifestyles or over-the-top individual sports programs, just as our national obesity epidemic is not just a matter of individuals eating too much. There are broad institutional and cultural forces at work. This is a social justice issue, not just a personal issue. We are being pressured by competitive forces in business to work too many hours either so we can keep our jobs or because one job does not pay a living wage, and we are voluntarily enrolling our children in their own version of the adult rat race. There's a saying worth keeping in mind: Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

As a family therapist I am especially concerned that we have allowed the adult world of marketplace values and hyper-competition to invade the family. Parents of course love their children and try to do what is best for them. But we are raising our children in a culture that defines a good parent as an opportunity provider in a competitive world. Parenting becomes like product development, with insecure parents never knowing when they've done enough and when their children are falling behind. Keeping our children busy at least means they are in the game. (I know six-month-old babies who take three different classes per week.) We are training our children to become workaholics when they grow up, in order to compete in the global economy. And parenting has become a competitive sport, with the trophies going to the busiest.


This is a spiritual issue as well as a social justice issue for us as Unitarian Universalists. Overbusyness has spiritual effects. Every spiritual tradition emphasizes the importance of silence and repose; most have some form of Sabbath and seasons of reflection. Our culture of busyness is antithetical to the spiritual life. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton expressed it well in Confessions of Guilty Bystander:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

We UUs are in the belly of this beast. We are a largely middle- to upper-middle-class denomination, and our social class group leads the way in the social pathologies of overwork and overscheduling. We work hard and achieve much in our personal lives. We want the best of the best for our children. In our congregations, we lionize those who give the most time to the church, who serve on multiple committees, who spend their evenings and weekends in the service of the community. We expect our ministers to work impossible hours, to come to every committee meeting, and to be available to us off-hours. I remember how upset members of a congregation were when the minister politely announced that he would like members to call him during the workday rather than at home for matters that were not urgent.

As much as we want good services from our paid staff, many of us prioritize church time well behind our personal and family schedules, as witnessed by the struggle of religious education and Coming of Age programs to get families to squeeze in time for their children's faith development around competitive sports activities. I have been a UU long enough to remember election slates for church board positions with multiple members running for each slot. Nowadays the most important committee in the congregation is the nominating committee, whose job it is to persuade one busy member to run for each leadership slot. Let's face it: We UUs are sitting ducks for the culture of workaholism, competitive parenting, and frantic living. We are its agents, not just its victims.

But we have a rich Unitarian Universalist tradition of challenging the blind spots in ourselves and the larger society. We have the spiritual and community resources to tackle this new problem. The beginning of social change is to name a problem that has had no name, and to say that it doesn't have to be this way.

We do not have to live time-starved lives, and neither do our children.

Fortunately, the counter-revolution has begun in the form of the Take Back Your Time movement that started in 2003 with Take Back Your Time Day on October 24. It is becoming an annual national event (I'm on the national steering committee), and the organization is committed to counteracting the forces of overwork, overscheduling, and chronic sense of hurry. The movement is examining the forces of economic insecurity, consumerism, hyper-competition, invasive technology, out-of-control sports, and our failure to buffer our children and families from these toxic forces. I have helped to organize three local communities in Minnesota around the problem of overscheduled kids and underconnected families.

The Unitarian Universalist Association's Washington Office for Advocacy has endorsed Take Back Your Time Day. Congregations can get on board by holding forums on the problem of time famine in our culture, exploring its personal, spiritual, and social justice dimensions. They can organize Take Back Your Time events during the week of October 24. They can do what the First Unitarian Church of Duluth, Minnesota, has done: encourage congregational leaders to take occasional sabbaticals from church work and instead come and be nurtured. They can examine their expectations of their ministers and other professional staff and explore ways to allow these spiritual leaders to have balanced, spiritual lives.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is often quoted expressing similar sentiments to his Christian counterpart Thomas Merton:

If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, our uncertainty, our craving, how can we have the time to stop and look deeply into the situation—our own situation, the situation of our beloved ones, the situation of our family and of our community, and the situation of our nation and of the other nations?

To look deeply—this is the starting point for the spiritual life and the life committed to social justice. I call for Unitarian Universalists to look deeply at how we are using the precious, endangered resource of time, and from looking deeply, to be about the task of changing our world.


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