One of the peculiarities of life during lockdown was that time seemed to melt and become liquid. Days expanded to last for years; weeks rippled like stones were skipping across their surface. The chronological markers that we were used to vanished in those years indoors, and so we were unmoored in time. For many of us, the only constant left was work, which threatened to overwhelm and swallow up the vast overflow of time.
This moment in time was, writes Jenny Odell in her new book Saving Time, a moment of kairos, the Greek word for time meaning time as a crisis point at which other possibilities become visible. “What I find in kairos is a lifeline,” she writes, “a sliver of the audacity to imagine something different.”
Odell, an artist whose last book How to Do Nothing became a surprise bestseller after its publication in 2019, attempts in Saving Time to make visual the ways in which capitalist conceptions of time are artificial and historically situated, and provide newer and more nourishing alternatives. As the pandemic continues its long slow ebb and the climate crisis comes into ever sharper definition, time has continued to warp around us, to speed up and slow down, to seem both foreordained and capricious. We live in the darkest, dumbest timeline, goes the Twitter joke, and we are watching the end of the world. Yet in the space we find outside of work time, Odell argues, we can find room to tend to both our own psyches and to our ailing planet.
Saving Time is one of two major new books that purports to deal with the problem of capitalism and how it warps our lives, and to do so more meaningfully than the productivity gurus on LinkedIn. The other is Real-Self Care, a new book from psychiatrist and New York Times contributor Pooja Lakshmin. Lakshmin’s Real Self-Care is a self-help book that aims to offer self-care tips that go beyond telling individual people to buy more expensive face creams, and instead help readers both live within the systemic outrages of capitalism and find ways of changing the system.
Together, the two form a handbook of sorts, a practical guide for living in a time that makes it hard to see what time is.
We’ve been trained to see our time as money. Does it have to be that way?
How to Do Nothing became a hit during the pandemic because it offered ways to wrest your attention away from work and screens and toward the physical world, re-creating yourself as an embodied being within a unique geographical context.
The brief of Saving Time is to pull off the same trick, this time focused on time rather than attention: finding ways to shake our sense of time away from that fostered by capitalism, as a resource to be extracted, and into a more holistic sense of time as a creative force, on the huge scale of geological time and on the tiny tender scale of plants.
“Time” is a more theoretical subject than attention, and as such, Saving Time lacks the empathetic practicality that made How to Do Nothing such a hit. This is a dutiful book that conscientiously checks its privilege at every opportunity. Still, as Odell churns out fact after fact on the history of how we think about time, we start to get a sense of how strange and artificial contemporary labor time is.
Clock time, Odell tells us, is the product of European conquest: first developed by medieval monks who needed to participate in coordinated prayers at set times of the day, and standardized by the British railway system so that all trains would run on the same schedule. As late as the 18th century in China, where life was organized around calendar dates rather than by the hour, Western clocks were dismissed as “simply intricate oddities, destined for the pleasure of the senses,” objects that “fulfil[led] no basic needs.”
Today in China, time is very different. All 3.7 million square miles of the country have lived on Beijing time since 1949, regardless of how far any given location might be from the capital. Xinjiang, 1,000 miles west of Beijing and a hub for the local Uyghur population, has historically held out and kept use of Xinjiang time, which is two hours behind Beijing time. Lately, as part of its genocidal regime against the Uyghur, the Chinese government has been cracking down on Xinjiang time. One man, Odell writes, was detained by authorities for keeping his wristwatch on Xinjiang time rather than Beijing time: the act, Chinese authorities declared, of a terrorist. The way we mark time is political, and those politics are high stakes.
In the West, we have learned to think of time as a commodity to be bought and sold. We sell our time to our employers, often 40 hours a week of it or more, and then our employers attempt to extract ever more time from us. Emails take over time off for office workers; hourly workers are understaffed and overscheduled. Saving Time is a call to move away from this way of seeing time, to think of it as historically contingent rather than as a law of nature. “I think the reason most people see time as money is not that they want to, but that they have to,” Odell writes.
Odell’s solution to this issue is not for us all to quit our jobs or hustle our way into early retirement. (Although she does suggest experimenting with mediocrity if you can afford to do so, which is close enough to quiet quitting to make a trend piece.) Rather, she proposes that instead of thinking of our leisure as time away from work that will simply refresh us for more work, we think of it as time that is actively focused on deepening our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Leisure thought of in this way, Odell writes, becomes not “an experience to be consumed or a goal to be met,” but “a state of mind or an emotional posture — one that, like falling asleep, can be achieved only by letting go.” Her suggestions for finding this state of mind remain largely unchanged from her recommendations in How to Do Nothing: Find a piece of natural landscape, something as small as a particular tree branch, and observe it, closely. See how it changes day to day. Join a local mutual aid group. Care for your community. See if giving your time away to someone else leads not to a loss of time but an enrichment of it, a sense of time expanding ever outward.
Can learning to advocate for ourselves lead to systemic change?
The idea that helping others helps ourselves is central to the thesis of Real Self-Care. By making time for ourselves, Lakshmin argues, we are able to find the space to enact systemic change on the world. Her project is to distinguish what she calls real self-care from the faux self-care peddled by the wellness industry of yoga retreats and green juices. Instead, she argues, real self-care means identifying your values and drawing firm boundaries in your life.
Lakshmin does not come by this argument lightly. During her medical residency as a psychiatrist, she became disillusioned with the same issue that Real Self-Care aims to tackle: Many of her patients were struggling with systemic problems, not psychiatric problems. They needed child care and health insurance, but all Lakshmin was able to offer them was antidepressants and therapy. As Lakshmin would later write, “This isn’t just about burnout, it’s about betrayal” — betrayal of individual people by a state that failed to provide them what they needed to live their lives.
This problem seemed so disillusioning to Lakshmin during her residency that she dropped out to join a wellness commune focused on orgasmic meditation. The group would later be investigated by the FBI as a cult, but Lakshmin spent two years living with them before she eventually made up her mind to escape. She was convinced at the time that she had found the answer to her burnout in this group that purported to be a utopia for women, their needs, and their bodies. She was only able to leave after she began to believe that one wellness practice couldn’t be the solution to everything.
So Lakshmin knows, she writes, how alluring the wellness industry can be when it sells itself to us as the solution to all our problems. “I had been seduced by the fantasy that an external solution — this shiny wellness practice — could transform my life,” she tells us. Now, she believes that “real self-care” can only be done from within.
Real Self-Care is not a lyrical or philosophical meditation on its subject like Saving Time. It is a true self-help book, with exercises for the reader to help identify your personal values and sidebars that advise you on whether or not you should seek mental health counseling. Where Lakshmin aligns with Odell is in her contention that once that internal work begins, it evolves into systemic reform.
“Real Self-Care is about changing our internal landscape so that we can go forth and exert power and agency in the outside world,” she writes. “I think of this as planting seeds of revolution — we are seeding the future for ourselves and for the next generation as well.”
To that end, Real Self-Care is dotted with stories of women advocating for themselves and reaping the structural rewards for doing so. One of Lakshmin’s patients, Sonia, is a depressed mother in her 30s who feels abandoned by her husband when he goes right back to work after the birth of their two children. During her pregnancy with her third child, Sonia asks her husband to take paternity leave this time (self-care). He’s the first man to ask for parental leave at the small startup where he works, and his request prompts the company leadership to instate a policy of gender-neutral parental leave for all their employees (systemic change). “And it started with Sonia learning how to treat herself with compassion,” Lakshmin writes.
This kind of boundary setting is not, Lakshmin acknowledges, available to everyone. Plenty of companies would just as soon have denied Sonia’s husband’s request for parental leave, and plenty of men wouldn’t have asked for that leave in the first place. For those in precarious positions, Lakshmin advises they try saying no to a small task, looking at the results, and making plans from there — including exit plans.
It’s also useful, she suggests, to look to your community for help when possible. “Humans thrive on shared connections,” she writes. “Instead of resisting and turning away supports in your life, remind yourself that the people who offer help are receiving as well.”
This advice, too, is in alignment with Saving Time: a reminder that we don’t exist as individuals awash in a sea of indignities against which we are powerless, but as human beings with human relationships in which all kinds of possibilities exist: connection and help and responsibility and solidarity. In order to make the most of those possibilities, though, Lakshmin argues that we must understand ourselves, what we want from others, and what we are willing to give in return.
The biggest gift both of these books have to offer, though, is the possibility that life doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to languish, impotent, in our dumb dark world, letting time march us forward and watching everything burn. We can step outside of work time and into the time scale of a tree branch, of a patch of moss. We can advocate for ourselves and for our neighbors. Instead of drowning in time, we can swim.