Time as a social construct

There is a running dialogue in my friend group back home wherein half of us believe that time is an objective, scientific thing and the other half of us believe that time is a social construct with which humans try to make sense of the world. Our conversations get heated and we talked about life and death and science and how humans measure the known world around us. Guess which camp I’m squarely in.

I draw a huge parallel between time and other social constructs. Bear with me as I oversimplify two seperate concepts for the sake of discussion: Take race for example– biologically, all humans are the same species. Scientifically, we know this. Yet race relations are a whole other game– racism and colorism have lasting, often violent consequences for people, even if race is scientifically speaking no more than differences in gene expression. Humans have perverted this objective fact (human biology) because we are social creatures– we have socially constructed a whole other world in which race IS more than just our biology. So much more.

In a similar pattern (though certainly with less implications), I would argue that time is an objective thing- scientifically we count it. It explains a lot of our world around us. Time as a variable helps us describe so much. Yet socially, our understandings of time vary tremendously between cultures. Some of us treat time like a linear line on which we move forward. Some of us treat time like a room in which we can enter or exit at will. Some of us could care less about time and instead focus on other markers throughout our lives– the sun, the moon, mealtimes, births, deaths.

And for those of us socialized in the west, more often than not we treat time as currency- “time is money”. We treat time as if it is valuable. Precious even. And something we can elect to spend or not spend. “Save some time” we say, even in the face of our own mortality. As if we ever could save some time. Deep down we all know that our time is finite, yet we act like we have a limitless supply of it. And perhaps most interestingly, we act like time is our own.

Here in Thailand, time is not my own. The collectivist culture here demands that time be a communal affair, always. Almost all activities are shared each day– eating and work and celebrations and mourning. Time is to be shared. Time is more valuable when it is spent alongside friends and family.

This past weekend, my Thai grandmother passed away. She was 81 years old. The entire community has been mourning her loss in our home for the last five days. People came from all over Thailand to help set up the funeral. To help cook. To clean. To dress her body. It’s amazingly efficient, despite the heat and humidity. It’s amazingly intimate– I think of the phrase “many hands make light work” often when observing how my Thai family and community come together to achieve something in the spirit of goodwill and love. They give all of their time, sleeping in hammocks and waking up at 4 each day to provide any service they can. They do not hoard their time– they give it away unconditionally.

I can not imagine this treatment of time in my previous American life. Even now, three months in to my life in Thailand, I struggle to be more generous with my time. I am stressed about sharing my time. I say things like “I don’t have enough time for this”. I am fixated on time, MY time, and the more I reflect on this, the more I find myself laughing at myself. I can’t keep my time. I can’t save it and I certainly can’t spend it later.

Thai people know how to treat their time like a gift– I have so much to learn from them.

The clock is ticking and here we go.


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