One of the most derided concepts among upper-class Westerners is “convenience.” The foods most often subject to public loathing, whether frozen, instantly prepared or at a takeout fast-food chain, are usually the ones eaten in the name of convenience. To say that something was “convenient” is often to damn it with faint praise (“a convenient excuse”). Joel Garreau puts it well in Edge City, his 20-year-old breathlessly eloquent defence of suburban office parks: “Interesting word, ‘convenience.’ In everyday use it lacks punch. It sounds optional, frivolous. It connotes something we could easily do without. It has no sense of urgency, no aura of importance.” What’s unfortunate about the use of “convenience,” Garreau rightly notes, is that what it actually refers to is
the most precious element any human has, the very measure of his individuality — time…. Everything we value, from love to lucre, takes time. Time is the measure of the conflicting demands put upon us, and as such is the measure of our very selves. It is the one commodity that turns out, for each individual, irrevocably, to be finite. (111, emphasis in original)
Seen from this perspective, there is nothing frivolous or optional whatsoever about “convenience.” This is true whether we live a worldly life seeking worldly ends or a monastic one seeking liberation. Without a belief in rebirth, we do not have anything like the infinite eons Śāntideva envisioned in which one could progress slowly on the bodhisattva path. He thought it was urgent for us to become monks and dedicate ourselves to liberation in this lifetime, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t get another chance for billions of years. Yet just as importantly, eventually, after some unimaginable amount of time, we would get that chance, in a way that now seems unlikely at best. Without rebirth, death places an absolute limit on our time. Saving time is in a sense saving a life – for when we speak of “saving” a life, all we can ever mean is prolonging that life, which is in turn to say giving that life more time.
Saving time, then, can be among the noblest of human goals. The reason “convenience” looks so suspect, however, is that very often it doesn’t really save us time, doesn’t actually add anything to our lives. The biggest trap is the pattern all too familiar in the US: one spends one’s money on conveniences (convenience foods, labour-saving devices, and so on), in order to save time – and then spends the newly available time making more money, much of which itself is spent on conveniences. Little if anything is gained here. One might well argue that little time is genuinely saved. For too often we are trapped in the belief that our paid work should be our life’s fulfillment when, as Marx long ago noted, it is by definition alienated: to the extent that we work for pay, we work for others and not for ourselves. We might be lucky enough to find work we enjoy most of the time, but there is no reason to expect that paid work should be any more fulfilling than cooking or washing the dishes. Perhaps we are still a little too wedded to what Max Weber called the Protestant ethic, which rejected the use of money for pleasure and enjoyment (vacations, eating out, beauty products) but endorsed spending it on “comfort,” an idea not too far removed from “convenience.” The idea of making money to save time to make more money may have made sense within the dour world of Calvinist theology, but it’s a little bizarre that the rest of us would continue to follow it.
Still, these points all raise a related question: what, exactly, should our time be used for? Suppose that, as Marx imagined, we really could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” – should we do all of these? Thanks to the heroic work of the early twentieth-century labour movement, most of us have two days a week on which we can do exactly what Marx says – at least if we do not raise children in addition. But how then should we make decisions about how to use this precious “spare” time? Should we indeed spend the day in pastoral and agrarian pursuits followed by dinner, and then write critical philosophy in the evening – or should we spend the whole day doing one or the other if that’s what we love? Or should we play games and sports with friends and loved ones? Or should we raise children and spend the time doing that? Once we realize how finite our time on earth is, the way we spend it comes to take on great importance.