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Q & A with Heather Menzies, Author of No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life

Q. Why ‘No Time’?

By “no time,” I don’t just mean that people are busy, over-extended and stretched to the breaking point. I mean that too many of us aren’t fully present in our lives these days. Not present at the main event. And if we’re not, what are we missing? Are we neglecting and abandoning some really important things in life like our kids, our spouses, even our planet?

To understand this, you have to understand that time doesn’t just mean clock time. Time first and foremost means life, the experience of living, in our bodies, in the body of relationships and social institutions with shared rhythms, with cycles that change but that also repeat themselves and, as they do, they ground us, bond us. They’re our social gravity. Implicitly, my book argues that we’re in danger of forgetting this first meaning of time and losing it, at our peril.

Q. I can understand stressed people, but what’s this about stressed institutions?

The connection between the two actually goes to the heart of my book. The key for me wasn’t just seeing the obvious — that people are over-extended and scattered. It was noticing what people are extended and scattered in.

So many of us are immersed in an on-line social environment in which everything is fragmented, abbreviated and abstracted. It allows us to get more things done a whole lot faster all right, but at the cost of disconnect – not just from ourselves but the larger picture of whole social activities like health care, social work and public education.

The middle section of the book is called Attention Deficit Culture, because I chart the effect of all this fragmentation and abstraction, and the shift from face-to-face realities to an on-line symbol realm of reality in our key social institutions. I document how people’s attention does begin to switch from the realities of sick and needy people in front of them to the bit-tasks and data sets on the screen. Partly because that’s what counts for accountability, and also because they haven’t got time to take on the full reality these tasks and data sets are part of or represent so they just focus on the bit-task, getting the report in on time or whatever. This is where the stressed institution comes in, and the toll this is taking as people are neglected and reality abandoned.

Q. You comment on the role of common sense in our society today, saying that we are in danger of losing our capacity to speak the plain truth to others and ourselves. Explain.

I am concerned that technocratic experts and their data sets have eclipsed a lot of the public dialogue based on direct observation and intuition that used to inform public decision-making.

More worrisome still, I see evidence that as a society we’re losing the capacity to engage in that kind of consensus building, and that kind of dialogue based on people’s informed intuition and common sense is falling silent. Part of the Walkerton tainted water tragedy was that when the experts’ knowledge failed the people of Walkerton, they weren’t able to fall back on their own common sense and shared experience and take corrective action. It’s a serious problem.

Q. You end the book with some advice on how to reclaim our lives. Are you optimistic that we can change the tide? What will it take?

When I look at the lack of real action and commitment around the Kyoto Accord I shake my head. What will it take for us to reclaim the planet and bring it back to a healthy equilibrium in which it can continue to sustain life, including human life?

The key to me is identification: the ability to know that the earth is us and all our relations as the First Nations put it. Not just to know this, but to feel it in our bodies and souls. Similarly here, I have amassed a lot of hard research evidence on the huge numbers of people who keep pushing themselves past the warning signs of fatigue and burnout, who go until they collapse, who ignore their children, their partners and friends because all they can see and identify with is the numbers on the screen.

More public discussion of this as a social not a personal issue will help, and certainly that is necessary. More effort spent connecting the dots between over-extended parents and children who aren’t growing up school ready, and between too much fragmentation and contracting out and a diminishing sense of an institutional ethos and integrity – this would help too. Or perhaps this over-inflated, over-extended symbol-based new economy will, like the eCommerce bubble of the late 1990s simply implode one day, and as a society we’ll be forced to rethink our priorities. I’d like to think that change can come about less dramatically: as an accretion of individual, group and institutional decisions to shift priorities back to what makes us human rather than what makes us faster and more competitive.