Intrinsic Time Over Instrumental Time

6a00d83462eb8d69e20162fca0900d970d-800wiA quick survey: How many people in our congregation regularly wear a wristwatch? Apple watch, anyone?  Regardless of what timepiece you carry, it’s clear that we live in a world obsessed with time. Rarely does anyone sidle up to you in the grocery store anymore and ask, “Do you have the time?” because everyone has it attached to their body in some way. We have multiple apps for tracking our calendars, managing our deadlines and even timing our walk to the office. We have time staring at us from the corner of our computer screens, from the dash board of the car and from the digital clock on the bank sign down the street. If you live in a city, you might even look up and see a classic old clock fixed on a historic building which has been marking the time for generations.

In some cities, in fact, telling time is literally a big deal. If you’re in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for example, you can’t help but see the Abraj Al Bait Towers clock just about anywhere you go. Its clock face is 43 meters in diameter, roughly the size of a luxury yacht, built on a tower that’s 601 meters (almost 2,000 feet) tall. By comparison, Big Ben, arguably the most famous clock in the world, is just over 6 meters in diameter on a 96-meter-high tower on the bank of the Thames. Other cities around the world have similar “big time” clocks to help residents and visitors track the time, some even assisting with chimes or bells when the clock strikes the hour.

You’d think that the plethora of clocks in our world would make us better at managing our time, but the truth is that time management is one of the biggest stressors in our culture.

We work too many hours, we have too many distractions, and we’re trying to squeeze in more work in less time. Procrastination is often the result of being so overwhelmed with tasks that we keep putting things off, only to find that we’re now even more squeezed for time.


The first-grader asked his mother why Daddy brought home a briefcase full of papers every evening.

She explained, “It’s because Daddy has so much to do he can’t finish at the office and has to work nights.”

“Well, then,” said the child, “why don’t they just put him in a slower group?”


 The synagogue wanted to help its congregation cope better with the stresses of modern life, and decided to offer a course in time management.

Soon after the course was announced, a member telephoned the rabbi.

“What time does the course start, Rabbi?”

The rabbi replied, “Oh, I don’t know. Six-ish, seven-ish.”

A few years back, in an issue of Loyola University of Chicago Law Journal, M. Cathleen Kaveny – now at Notre Dame, wondered whether the lives of lawyers are being distorted by what she calls the “billable hours mentality.”

That mentality, she observes, is only an extreme version “of the view of time dominant in American life today.” Kaveny, who also teaches in the university’s theology department, thinks religious traditions have something valuable to teach us about how to view time.

Peter Steinfels of The New York Times reported on her article: “Lawyers did not always bill clients that way, and small firms generally still don’t. But the growth of firms employing over 50 lawyers exploded after the early 1960s, and computers gave managing partners a way to measure the productivity of young associates whom they could scarcely know personally.

“In [Professor Kaveny’s] opinion, the ‘regime of billable hours’ treats time ‘as instrumentally valuable, rather than intrinsically valuable.’ What counts are the extrinsic goals of winning advantages for the client and profits for the firm. Intrinsic satisfactions like doing good work, nurturing younger associates or contributing to the community cannot be translated into billable hours.

“The habit of treating time as a commodity with a price tag can seep into other aspects of lawyers’ lives, Professor Kaveny says, so that non-work activities and even personal relationships are viewed in financial terms.

Time spent with family or friends is calculated in terms of ‘trade-offs’ and lost opportunities. The billable hours framework levels all time, Professor Kaveny warns, flattening out its rhythms into a kind of ‘endless, colorless present.’ Life is experienced as monotonous extension.”

–Peter Steinfels, “A religious alternative to billable hours,” The New York Times, December 29, 2001.

The relentless ticking of the clock (or, in their case, the movement of the shadow around the sundial) is what the ancient Greeks referred to as chronos time, from which we get “chronological” time. If you buy an expensive watch today (either to actually tell time or to make a fashion statement), the jewelry store will likely refer to it as a “chronograph.” It keeps the time that we’re always tracking, managing and running out of.

Chronos time might be the instrumental view of time. Intrinsic time is the spiritual view. We should learn to know the difference.

These days we might have atomic clocks in our homes that are accurate to the second because they synchronize automatically by radio frequency with the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. The watch on our wrist or the clock in the bell tower might be fast or slow, but the NIST F-2 clock is always right. The same might be said of God’s time, which calibrates us toward being right with God’s time and accurate in our faith and practice.

How we “make the most of the time” is thus a function of how well we use our chronos to focus on the religious.

How does your calendar reflect time spent cultivating your relationship with God? Does your daily rhythm include time dedicated solely to prayer? Are you participating in weekly worship where you can be filled with spirit?

Rather than just letting time tick away, put it to the more intrinsic use.

One of the iconic images of the silent-film era is that of funny-man Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a giant clock on the side of a big-city building, many stories above the street. The scene is from the 1923 comedy, Safety Last.

The man in the picture is Lloyd himself. There is no safety net. In those early days of cinema, stunt doubles were only just emerging as a specialty, and CGI effects were completely unheard of.

Perhaps the reason that scene is so memorable is that a man dangling precariously from the hands of a giant clock seems to capture our ambiguous relationship with time.

In this week’s Haftarah Portion, Jeremiah asks a question which is significant in every age: “Shall a person make unto oneself gods, and they are no gods?”

“Shall a person make unto oneself gods, and they are no gods?”

Sadly, the sin of idolatry is not confined to the ancient past.

Throughout the ages, we have made gods of things which are not gods. Idolatries of wealth, possessions, class and caste are still with us. Fascism has been defined as an idolatrous religion, glorifying the state and canonizing a leader. Communism may be defined as an idolatrous religion, glorifying a class, idolizing leaders and reading its class doctrine into the nature of things. People have put their faith in science as a religion, in rationality as a panacea, in blueprints, economic and social, for the reconstruction of society.

Some people have made an idol of time.  If we are guilty then isn’t it time to take time back?

Ann Lamott is quoted on a sermon billboard this week:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you.”  I know all of us here take Shabbat seriously; that’s why we are here. I challenge us to make a list of all the things we do that are instrumental and those that are intrinsic.

And I ask us to find more balance between the two.

By stopping. By studying. By doing less. By living with more gratitude. By remembering that clocks serve us. We don’t serve clocks.

A British father wrote that when he was on an outing with his family, his wife implored their daughter Molly to hurry up because there was no time to stop and blow dandelions. In response, Molly raised what may be for a child — perhaps for all of us — the major philosophical issue of our day. Mummy, she said, what is time for?



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