Sunday, July 29, 2012

Time poverty

When my husband and I first got engaged, I had an opportunity to get a second job.  It was a good opportunity -- the pay was good and we needed the money -- but I didn't really want to work two jobs.  I didn't like the idea of leaving one job at the end of the day and driving straight to another one.  My husband, however, thought I should do it.  "Think of all the extra money!" he said.  He made a compelling argument and I was eventually persuaded to his point of view. 

I was miserable as soon as I started the job.  I always felt rushed, like I never had time to do the things I wanted to do.  I was constantly stressed out and was often irritable.  I ended up quitting after about a month.

Did my second job really consume so much of my time that there was none leftover for me to do the things I felt were important?  I honestly don't know.  What's important is that I felt like I didn't have enough time to do the things that were important to me.  My perception was what mattered.

The mistake I made (i.e., taking a second job I knew I didn't want) is a common one: I bought into the belief that money is more valuable than time.  Ours is a fast-paced society.  We are always in a hurry and there is never enough time in the day to accomplish all the things that need to be done.  Studies in both the U.K. and the U.S. have found that while a typical adult has about five to seven more hours of leisure time compared to thirty years ago, people today  feel like they have less time to engage in meaningful activities than they did back then. 

If we have more free time than ever before, why do we still feel so rushed?

As it turns out, I'm not the first person to ask this question.  And there's actually a name for feeling like there's never enough time: it's called time poverty.  Time poverty is an inevitable outcome of living in a world that never slows down.  Some suggest that it's tied to the competitive nature of Western (and especially American) society.  Culturally, we have embraced the idea that success is measured by material wealth and tangible achievements.  For this reason, we attribute more significance to a prestigious job title than to the nature of our relationships with family and friends.  We want to be successful so we constantly strive to "get ahead."  (The irony is that no matter how far you get ahead it will never be far enough to make you happy.  True happiness doesn't come from getting ahead or even from being successful).  We fill our schedules with activities that reflect the value we place on material gain and personal achievement.  Unfortunately, these are typically not activities we find to be meaningful or personally fulfilling.  Still, they consume the bulk of our time, often at the expense of activities that we do find intrinsically rewarding.

So what can we do about it?  We can't exactly get off the boat while life sails past us at breakneck speed.  Dr. Stephan Rechtschaffen believes he has a solution.  He calls his strategy "timeshifting."  According to Dr. Rechtschaffen, the problem with living in a fast-paced world is that we never switch gears.  There are times, he acknowledges, when we need to move quickly.  At other times, however, we need to slow down and be present.

Sound familiar?  Dr. Rechtschaffen is basically telling us that the way to create balance in our lives is to incorporate periods of mindfulness.  He assures us that we don't have to take time out of our already hectic schedules to integrate mindfulness practice into our day.  All we need to do is pick a mundane task and make a conscious effort to bring our full attention to the activity.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

How do we spend our time?

I recently read an article about making the most of your weekends that really struck a nerve.  We're always complaining that the weekend is too short.  It certainly seems that way!  There never seems to be enough time to do the things we really want to do.  If, however, we are truly honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that we don't make the best use of the time we do have.  For example, we don't have to spend Friday night in front of the television.  Sure, we have plenty of legitimate excuses for doing just that -- we're tired from a long work week, we deserve a break from our constant commitments, we need some time to ourselves, etc.  All of these things are probably true and if you feel strongly about your Friday night television time then have it, by all means.  But if you decide to use your time this way, you are not in a position to later lament that you haven't seen your friends in months becaue you "haven't had the time."  Nor can you honestly say that the reason you haven't had a quiet night alone with your significant other in so long is because you're both "extremely busy."  Furthermore, you are being less than truthful when you tell your parents that the reason you haven't come to visit (or called) in so long is because you've been so busy with work and other responsibilities.

I'm as guilty as anyone of making excuses for not getting around to things I claim are important to me.  It's human nature.  Our behavior at a given point in time is strongly influenced by - among other things - how we feel at that particular moment.  That is why, despite our best intentions, so many of us never make it to the gym after work, put off projects until the last possible minute, or knowingly do something we're sure to regret later.  So while spending time with our friends and family is important to us, it is often overshadowed by our emotional impulses.  "I know I should spend some time with so-and-so," we tell ourselves.  "But I'm just so tired.  The only thing I feel like doing right now is sitting here on the couch."

Most of us know that time is a precious (and nonrenewable) resource.  Still, most of us squander our time as if it were of no value at all.  Ilona Boniwell conducted a study on how people use their time.  She discovered that while most people do not see watching television as a meaningful activity, they still spend a significant amount of time doing it, to the tune of about fourteen hours per week.  I imagine we'll begin to see similar studies about how much time we spend online. 

I've often pointed out that no one on their deathbed says, "I wish I'd spent more time at work" or "I wish I'd spent more time watching t.v."  I think about this whenever I'm tempted to turn down an invitation to get together with my friends or family.  Sure, I might be tired, but I can always go to bed early another night.  When I'm at the end of my life looking back, will I say, "I wish I'd gotten more sleep?"  Probably not.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


I used to work in a residential treatment center for teenage boys.  It wasn't all that uncommon for one of the boys to get angry at me or to become hostile.  There was one resident in particular who used to threaten to kill me everytime I did or said something to upset him.  Eventually, I learned what made him angry.  I avoided doing these things whenever possible but some things were unavoidable.  I didn't take it personally.  It was my job to give him bad news.  If it had been someone else's job, he would've threatened to kill them instead.  It was just his way of reacting to things he didn't want to hear.
I was pretty thick skinned back then.  I had to be in order to survive in that setting.  I worked there for three years.  After I left, I started working as an outpatient therapist.  One of the things I found most refreshing about outpatient therapy was how my patients treated me.  They were appreciative!  During the entire three years I worked as a residential therapist there were only two - two - boys who thanked me for helping them.  As an outpatient therapist, there were at least two patients who expressed appreciation to me in the first week.  The difference was that my therapy patients actually wanted my help; most of the boys I worked with before were only there because they had to be. 

Looking back, my years as a residential therapist were a valuable learning experience.  I not only grew as a clinician during that time; I grew as a person.  I learned to set limits, to be consistent, and to maintain clearly delineated boundaries.  I learned how to let go of wounded feelings out of necessity; I couldn't refuse to work with a resident just because he said or did something to me that was cruel or hurtful.  I left that job a better person than when I started.  I assumed these were permanent changes and that the things I learned there would stay with me forever.

But time can make you forget.  I've grown accustomed to patients treating me with kindness and respect.  That's not to say that my interactions with patients are always cheerful or pleasant; they're not.  Still, I rarely - if ever- encounter the level of hostility I used to get from some of the boys at the residential center.  I guess that's why I was a bit taken aback last week when a patient became hostile during a group therapy session. 

I really didn't know how to respond.  Group therapy has always been a struggle for me anyway; I intentionally avoided doing therapy groups for about three years because talking in front of a big group of people makes me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable.  On top of that, a couple of weeks ago my supervisor asked me to sit in on some of the groups run by other clinicians.  Our clinic asks therapy group members to complete anonymous feedback forms; it seems my groups haven't been getting rave reviews.  The hope is that by observing other clinicians' groups, maybe I'll learn something that will help me become a better therapist. 

Suffice it to say, group therapy is not my forte.  Then, out of the blue, one of the group members blows up on me.  I expected him to walk out when he was done yelling.  I was kind of disappointed when he didn't.  The entire group fell silent; no one said a word.  (I guess I wasn't the only one who didn't know how to respond).  After a long period of silence, I looked up at the clock.  "Well," I said pleasantly.  "It's a little early, but we'll go ahead and wrap it up for today.  Thanks everyone."  With that, I stood up and went back to my office.

It occurs to me as I write this that maybe it's not the hostility that upset me after all.  It is what I thought initially, but writing this has helped me to sort out my thoughts.  I think the incident felt sort of like a confirmation of how bad I am at group therapy.  It's sort of disheartening.  I'd resisted doing groups for a long time.  Still, when I couldn't get out of doing them anymore, it turns out that it wasn't as bad as I'd thought.  But perhaps I was wrong about that.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why people have kids

I've often wondered why so many people decide to have children.  That's not to say I don't want one myself -- I do.  It's just that if you asked me why, I'd find it hard to articulate. 

It seems like the logical choice for most people would be not to have children.  For one thing, raising a child is extremely expensive - about $235,000 from birth to high school graduation, according to the most recent estimate.  Children are also a lot of work.  The time parents spend caring for a child is time not spent engaging in hobbies, self-care, or other enjoyable activities.  Having a child shifts a couple's attention away from their relationship with each other, often causing them to neglect it altogether. 

Child rearing is a thankless job.  It is a rare child indeed who appreciates all the things her parents do for her.  Sure, she might come to appreciate it once she becomes an adult, but this is not guaranteed.  Nothing, in fact, is guaranteed when raising a child.  It is one of the riskiest investments a person can make;  it requires a huge commitment of time, energy, and resources up front with few short term returns and only the possibility of long term returns.

Some may argue that children bring immesuarable happiness into the lives of their parents.  While this may be true, evidence suggests that people with children are no happier overall than people without them.  Some studies even show that parents report lower levels of happiness than non-parents.  Given all the costs associated with raising a child -  and if children don't bring joy to our lives - then why are so many of us eager to become parents?

This is not a question we often ask ourselves.  Having children is almost a given, part of a list of things we are "supposed" to do in life.  Any newlywed couple will tell you that the questions about having children start almost as soon as the cake is cut (and sometimes before).  A couple's desire to have children is assumed.

To Chrstine Overall, author of Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, this seems counterintuitive.  Why, she wonders, are people expected to give reasons for not wanting to have children but are not asked to explain why they want to have children?  No one, she points out, says to a proud new parent, "Why did you decide to have this child?"  The decision to procreate is the "default" option; if you want to "opt out," you have to explain why. 

The decision to have a child, Overall argues, is an ethical one.  There are both good and bad reasons for choosing to procreate.  We have an ethical obligation to consider these issues, both as individuals and as a society.  "...The burden of justification," she argues, " primarily on those who choose to have children, not on those who choose to be childless." (For more, check out Christine Overall's New York Times post, "Think Before You Breed" at 

Overall's stance is, in my opinion, a moderate one.  She asks us to examine our reasons for wanting a child before deciding to procreate.  In his article, "Is There a Moral Obligation to Have Children," Saul Smilansky makes the more extreme argument that, at least in "first world" countries, most people have an ethical obligation to procreate.  While I disagree with his central premise, he does provide some compelling reasons in favor of deciding to have children.  Smilansky believes that children bring value to the world and to the lives of their parents.  He reasons that if people are inherently valuable then creating a new person amounts to creating value.  He also points to interpersonal relationships as "one of the major sources of value in the world."  There is an emotional attachment between a parent and child that does not exist in any other relationship.

Smilansky also see parenting a an unparalleled avenue for personal growth.  Through being a parent, a person becomes less self-centered and more focused on the needs of another.  Parenting sometimes requires a person to sacrifice his own personal wants and needs for those of his children.  A good parents learns to do this without becoming bitter or resentful.  Parenting teaches a person to give without expecting anything in return.

Smilansky goes on to talk about parenting as a moral obligation to society as a whole.  He points out that not having children places a greater burden on the children who are brought into the world, as they will ultimately be the ones supporting the economy and providing for society's care and services.  He also sees having children as a familial obligation in the form of passing on our genes (and the traits associated with them).  I find these arguments less compelling, perhaps because I am less interested in the implications of procreating on society and am more interested in the decision to procreate (or not) on a personal level.

I do believe that people should think seriously about why they do or do not want to have children before making a decision one way or another.

For those of your who have or want to have a child or children, what were/are your most compelling reasons? For those who have decided not to have children (or who are leaning in that direction), what reasons led you to your decision?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Making the best of a bad situation

My parents started planning a big family trip to Disney World last summer.  They traded their Virginia Beach timeshare for one in Orlando.  My mom managed to get reservations at Cinderella's Royal Table.  (For those  who, like me, know nothing about such things, Cinderella's Royal Table is an outrageously overpriced restaurant located in Cinderella's Castle at the center of the Magic Kingdom.  What makes it so exciting for the kids is that the Disney Princesses come up to your table while you eat.  For little girls under the age of 10, this is better than meeting a pop star).  Last Sunday, nine of us (my parents, me, my husband and stepdaughter, my older sister, my brother-in-law, and my two nieces) piled into two cars and made the twelve hour drive from Virginia to Orlando, FL.  About halfway into Georgia, we ran into some really heavy rain.  We weren't particularly concerned; it's not that unusual to run into rain on a long trip.  We figured we'd pass through it and back into sunshine.  We weren't all that concerned when it kept raining all the way to Orlando.  We assumed it was just a summer storm.

We didn't start to worry until we got settled in at the hotel and turned on the television.  That's when we learned that Tropical Storm Debby was stalled off of Florida's Gulf Coast.

Because the storm was basically stationary, it was projected to hang out in the Gulf for a few days and continue dumping rain on most of the state of Florida.

Forecasts called for wind and rain the entire week. My heart sank.  We'd been planning this trip for a year and now Tropical Storm Debby was going to ruin it.  I had images of the kids staring bleakly out the window at a torrential downpour of rain, crying over their shattered dreams of Disney World.

We awoke Monday morning to dark skies and relentless downpours.  I was surprised when my parents, my sister, and my brother-in-law pulled out rain ponchos for themselves and the kids.  Someone threw a poncho at me.  "Here, this one looks like it'll fit you."

I shrugged and put the poncho on.  I said nothing but thought to myself, "I can't believe we're going to Disney World in this weather."  I imagined we'd all be soaked to the bone and miserable within an hour.

In the end, it seems that I was the only one who expected Tropical Storm Debby to ruin our vacation.  Everyone else accepted the situation and adapted.  Nobody complained, not even the kids.  (I think the kids actually liked the rain.  We had to tell them more than once to stop jumping in puddles and splashing water all over everyone within a ten foot radius).  I felt a surge of pride when I looked around at all of us in our ponchos, standing in line for the Thunder Mountain Railroad as the storm raged on.  I felt it again when we all donned our ponchos and danced in the rain along with the Disney World "cast members" at the Street Party. We stayed at Disney World all day Monday.  We did it again on Tuesday.  On Wednesday, our luck changed.  Maybe fate smiled on us.  My sister said she prayed about it, so maybe it was divine intervention.  Whatever, the reason, it finally stopped raining.

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