Thrive on Campus//

War Against Time

“Time is now currency: It is not passed, but spent.”

Courtesy of Icons8 / Unsplash
Courtesy of Icons8 / Unsplash


Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

It’s something that I don’t think about, and simultaneously do. It explicitly organizes my life through my calendar’s daily schedule and by the less glaring visual on the right-hand corner of my laptop screen. I’m reminded of it every time I unlock my iPhone or glance down on my wrist, and it plagues my mind while I’m in class and hear the rhythmic hum of an analog clock. It beeps at me while I wait for my morning oatmeal from the microwave, and demands to be acknowledged at all moments of the day  —  all-knowing, omnipresent, and ever-ticking is Time.

Often, I forget about Time, but it creeps up in more subtle ways and manifests in the background as anxiety, anticipation, stress, or dread. Sneaking in through the backdoor, Time infiltrates the room when I’m not looking, and forces me to think about how much homework I have to do or glance down at my to-do list when I need to just sit still.

Time’s three digits aren’t always visible, but I know it’s still there. Lurking in the corner, Time disperses existential fear of the future, nostalgia for the past, short term excitement for next week or ruminations on yesterday’s gossip  —  all in lethal doses.

My shoulder devil is loaded with ammunition, and never misses a chance to strike and steal the moment in front of me. Time replaces Presence with Tasks and Duties, and leaves me with an embedded sense of urgency that something must get done. I find myself with little room for leisure and no clear distinction between work and life under the hands of the clock.

It’s a demanding system to live under 24/7, but other workers offer me Adderall, coffee, and energy drinks to combat my symptoms. Yet stimulants don’t defeat Time for long, and I remain victim to being busy, distracted, and naturalized to constant work and fatigue.

It wasn’t always a war against Time. Our notion of time seems so embedded in the system, that it’s hard to think of life without it, but temporality wasn’t always so rigid and standardized. We kept Time in intermittent doses and knew when we were off the clock. Working along the rhythm of nature, farmers dictated their days by the labor finished on the field, and fishermen estimated time by the rolls of the tide.

Time used to pass, but now, Time is spent.

Color-coded calendars, alarm clocks, and stopwatches. I’ve tried to grab hold of time through numerical data, photographs, and dialog clocks, but the reality is time is just a fleeting idea. I’m guilty of attaching my sense of time to these external benchmarks, but our elite institution makes this accident easy. Our culture of busyness, competition, and ambition requires a jam-packed schedule, and has become a way to connect with other students. It comes at no surprise when we’ve been trained since elementary school to continue until the bell rings, but at college… the bell never rings. There is always more that could be done.

However, this environment creates a scarcity mindset. It leads me to think I’m running out of time, yet I simultaneously hyper focus on that one thing. It feels as though I never have enough time for things I want to accomplish and explore because Time’s gnawing presence is impossible to escape. I fill my day at school with "worthwhile: activities outside of class, like sports practice, social events, and guest lectures, and it’s preparing me really well for maximizing opportunities. But have I become so busy planning for the next job interview and attending networking events that in between the activities for later, there’s little room for exploration, play, wonder, and spontaneity now?

Students, like myself, can use Time as the greatest excuse to miss what can’t be planned, in favor for what is already on the calendar. We’ve adopted an utilitarian attitude, embracing the culture of "the grind," dreaming big, and focusing on our goals to get there. But in the meantime, we obsessively plan and chronically put off pursuing perceived meager moments today, for our greatest aspirations in a few years. We live with the hope that “the future will somehow provide a more favorable backdrop,” but seem to forget how we’re living to get there. What about the moments that can’t be planned, that come without any return on investment? The ones that can’t be judged for productivity and efficiency because we’re too busy participating in it?

Aristotle tried to answer “the main question, with what activity one’s leisure is filled” thousands of years ago, and we’re still trying to balance work and play today. It would be easy to point fingers at Duke and blame the culture of "effortless perfection" or persistent competition keeping us from living, but how to spend leisure time can’t be taught in the classroom. Our lifestyle can’t be dismissed by our abused cliché, “work hard, play hard.”

Rather, a lesson on how to live is a lesson we need to teach ourselves, at will.

Ben Franklin once said “time is money,” and if that’s the case, we’re bankrupt. We’ve spent so much time hung up on the future and ruminating on the past, that we’ve been deceived by Time’s value and are left feeling the effects of its short supply. Drugs, sex and money are common anarchists to suspend Time, but they can’t permanently defeat the battle for the present moment.

Instead, Creativity is my first line of defense. I’m off the clock when I get to make stuff. I escape by becoming fully submerged in writing, poetry, painting, or photography, and forget about where I just came from, and where I need to be. I have a place to explore, rather than rush, and expand, rather than finish.

After I get over my instinct to "be productive," I’m no longer focused on the outcome of my art, or even if it turns out well. I’m relieved with a sense of freedom to be imperfect. It doesn’t matter if my poems are saturated in teen angst or if my photos have too much exposure because it’s not to show anyone, make money, or put on my resume. All that matters is that I enjoy doing it.

There’s something kind of liberating in the emptiness of meaning, and allows me to make something better than I would have with the weight of judgment, the need for external validation, or with goals for the future. In the beauty and activity of creativity, I’m free from the wrath of Time, and it’s restricting instincts for productivity, efficiency, and perfection.

Artistic endeavors are my first solution, but they aren’t the only way to end the War. “Life is long if we know how to use it,” and I use Time well when I expand my awareness to the moment I’m in, rather than the moment that just left, or the moment coming up. I put the stimulants down when I replace busyness with presence and can skip my afternoon Americano. Time is weakened when I let go of expectancy or nostalgia, and in return, can enjoy experiences of today.

I refuse to be Time’s victim and show up to obligations… becoming absent from myself by mistaking all the doing, for being. I’m losing sight of a rigid schedule, the pursuit of an A, social recognition, or "doing stuff just to get it done" and ending this war against Time.

I’m left with the moment right in front of me… and that is infinitely more rewarding.

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