A Brief Exploration of Time

Attitudes to time tell us a lot about particular cultures. To some, time is circular in nature and has no purpose. To others, time is a linear concept that reflects the progress of humanity. For this reason it’s interesting to note Koreans views on and use of time. Most of the trends identified are broadly applicable to the West too. One of the first things a foreigner will notice about urban Korea is that everyone seems to be in a hurry. This is summarized by the phrase ‘Bhali bhali!’ which means ‘Hurry up!’ It seems that many Koreans conduct life in emergency time. This feature originated from when South Korea fast forwarded from a primarily agricultural to industrial country. Given that South Korea has made the transition, do modern Koreans need to be in such a hurry? We can see an interesting contradiction here between Korean norms and that of indigenous Buddhism. Buddhism emphasizes the importance of contemplation and appreciating the present. If we live in a constant rush, we have little time to reflect on ourselves and the world. The ‘Slow Movement’ philosophy as expressed by Guttorm Fløistad agrees that ‘In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness’. Speed is also important when it comes to work time. The stereotype of the workaholic Korean is a reality for many. Unfortunately, it is not time well spent. Koreans work some of the longest hours in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation) in 2006, but continue to have low productivity (gross domestic product divided by total hours worked). Therefore, long hours and efficiency are not connected. In addition, the idea of a work-life balance is a distant hope for many. Less family time undoubtedly explains a lot of the social problems in Korea. The concept of multitasking is an illustrative example of work time. By doing several tasks at once we employ time ‘efficiently’. This innovation proves illusory as time is later wasted finding and correcting mistakes. In our free time we also believe time is best employed doing many things at once. Taking time to do something well is ‘inefficient’. Free time in Korea and the West is all about ‘doing things’. In contrast to Buddhist and ancient Greek teachings, reflection is seen as a waste of time. Temporarily freed from routine work time we feel vague anxiety about free time. How to spend it? The answer for many is to ‘kill’ time through passive activities such as watching TV and surfing the internet. Erich Fromm (psychologist) described the desire to be lazy during free time as a form of childish rebellion against work. According to the National Statistical Office, Koreans ‘spend two hours and six minutes and 28 minutes on their computers everyday’. This leaves only 49 minutes to converse with family and friends. Clearly, free time is not synonymous with creating and reinforcing relationships. Nor is much value placed on spending quality time with loved ones. Koreans and Westerners alike keep in touch with others in ‘real time’. In the past, waiting was to be expected as you couldn’t carry around home telephones. Delays between message and answer were no surprise. With the proliferation of mobile phones, instant messenger and online social networks, the age of ‘real time’ communication has

eroded patience. The accepted time between message and response has greatly contracted. To not answer a message immediately is viewed by many as a grave offence. The possibility of social death hangs over regular ‘offenders’. Instant communication has changed social norms. Not only must communication be instantaneous, so must other aspects of life such as waiting for a bus and happiness. These are all symptoms of a culture of impatience in Korea and the West. In contrast, numerous religions and philosophies are in agreement that patience is a virtue gained through regular meditation. All these aspects of life support the cliché that life should be lived in the present. Some might say that a busy life is living in the moment. This is a dubious assumption because incessant activity allows us no time to appreciate the present. Therefore, business might be thought of as an escape from our contingent and transient existence. The wisdom of the great Eastern and Western thinkers should not be discarded. As Buddha said, ‘concentrate the mind on the present moment’.