Artistic photo depicting a white hand holding out a old-fashioned alarm clock that is disintegrating into dust.

OPINION | Our Perception of Time Can Liberate Us

by Jasmine M. Pulido

Is our cultural perception of time interfering with our liberatory efforts? Since time is a social construct, is it possible we could consider a new understanding of time that better supports our collective liberation?

I came to these questions after thoughtfully considering these two concepts together — time and liberation — while studying the concept of beloved community in my graduate school class on Indigenous African spirituality. After gaining an understanding about how Indigenous African cultures thought about time, I contemplated how the Western concept of time breeds a vast sense of disconnection between us and, in doing so, supports interlocking systems of oppression which seek to separate us. Could modifying how we understand time have a monumental effect on our efforts to affect social change? Could transforming our concept of time be liberation in and of itself? 

I believe it can.

The Time-Money Equivalency

How many times have we heard the phrase “time is money,” often accompanied by someone tapping the face of their wristwatch? It’s a pretty common phrase that serves as an apt reflection of America’s cultural values. We see time as interchangeable with money, which, in a capitalist society, means it is an object of the highest possible value.

As such, we view time as something we must carefully consider or even obsessively fixate on how much of it belongs to us or is being transferred into or out of our ownership. We describe ourselves as spending time, saving time, investing time, wasting time, and making time, to name only a few. Time that isn’t in pursuit of gaining money is called “free time” and getting more of it is called “freeing up time.” The amount of time we have is of the utmost pertinence.

In this mode of thinking about time, constant focus on the quantity of time encourages a scarcity mindset.

Time as a Race Into the Future

In American culture, time is typically seen in the future tense. We have our eyes on the horizon, on cashing in our time toward progress for our future selves. We speed through and analyze situations to assess how we can get what we want as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

Even with the use of our “free time,” we can feel inclined to cash in that time toward the advancement of our skills in recreational endeavors. There’s the old adage that says “practice makes perfect,” and that’s exactly what we are trying to achieve with our time — perfection. Perfection of the skill, perfection of the craft, perfection of ourselves as human beings. Time is a vehicle in which we race toward perfection, to get as close as we can, even if we know we will never truly get there. 

The absolute best use of our time, in this mode of thinking, is when we can achieve our goals in less time than we estimated, or “making good time.” We see our lives as a race where taking the least amount of time is a barometer for success. In other words, achieving financial success — the most ideal outcome in capitalist society — at an early age is held up as an aspiration for others.

Time to Produce

In our American capitalist society, our main question about time is whether we have used it productively. Time is about a linear progress that moves on an ever-upward trajectory.

There are countless books dedicated to making us better at time management — how productive we are with our time. Once we have evaluated that, we use that conclusion to determine how good or bad we have been as a person or employee. Being “on time” is seen as a stellar quality among good qualities. An inability to be on time makes you inconsiderate, irresponsible, or a failure. Not being able to “keep time” to music suggests you lack a basic skill. We want our alignment with time to be precise. We want time to be completely under our control.

In this model of time and productivity, rest is secondary and even viewed as a weakness. Relaxation is a luxury we deserve only if we have been productive enough. Even when statistics show that more rest than the 40-hour workweek leads to more productive employees, we continue to emphasize the use of time toward actively churning out products. The inherent assumption here is that a morally good person would spend their time wisely by working, not resting. Applying your time toward working is virtuous, a righteous use of this commodity. These ideals of working hard, virtue, and the pursuit of perfection potentially originate from the ideals of our first colonizers, the Puritan settlers. Combined with capitalism, the pursuit of perfection becomes crafting the perfect work ethic, becoming the most financially successful person, or both.

Time in Traditional African Religion

In Gerhardus Cornelis Oosthuizen’s essay titled “The Place of Traditional Religion in Contemporary South Africa” in the book African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, edited by Jacob Olupona, Oosthuizen highlights a different interpretation of time that fundamentally shifts how people who embody the worldview in traditional African religions behave and interact with one another. 

Oosthuizen tells us that when it comes to showing up to events, the time factor of those events is not important. Instead, “being part of it, even for a small fraction of it, is what matters.” The value in our participation in community affairs lies in a person’s presence in any amount, not on whether you can come at a designated start time. Time management doesn’t exist. There is more of a flow to time than a scheduling of it. In fact, many other cultures have this same mentality about special occasions where there is zero emphasis on punctuality. Instead, an organically emerging and slower cadence is embraced and named in a way that ties the identity of the culture to this version of time, like “Hawaiʻi time” or “Filipino time.”

In this same South African tradition, the future self exists only a few months ahead, if at all. Rather, there is a “dynamic past and a long present.” Ancestors are included in the comprehension of time, and lessons from prior lived experiences are valuable, as well as being present for dealing with what is in front of us today. By focusing on a dynamic past that involves ancestors as ever-present in the community, by seeing the past as a rich field for insight rather than an ongoing trauma that requires the individual to be “fixed,” by reinstituting participation as the most important part of present events instead of when we show up, the traditional African religion has intuitively shaped time to serve the sustainable building of relationships. Time is a form of relational presence, not an article of currency. Time is human-centered, not material-centered. Time is subjective, not objective. Interdependent, not independent. 

American Time as the Antithesis of Community

When I think about time in the traditional African worldview, it has made me wonder if capitalism is quite possibly the antithesis of community. Relationships in capitalism are leveraged for “networking” or they are low ranking in the list of priorities that we make time for. Connection is viewed as a personal advantage instead of a reminder of our own collective humanity. No wonder we feel so depressed, anxious, and isolated.

In the capitalist worldview of time, we will never be good enough despite our desperate attempts to buy or work ourselves to a higher sense of self-worth. At best, we focus our individualist agenda toward a perfection that doesn’t exist. At worst, we pit ourselves against our fellow community members, believing that their successes equate to our own failures. We believe that achieving success and a better quality of life necessitates the oppression of another. Time is meant for competition, not for creating connections. In other words, we trade our beloved community for individual ambition.

If we consider changing how we understand time, perhaps we can move ourselves away from the narrow-minded pursuit of an individualist agenda and get back to being meaningfully connected to one another again. It could be that changing our perceptual comprehension of time will support our empathy for each other’s struggles and lower the extreme rates of loneliness we experience. Perhaps, as a result of changing our fundamental comprehension of time, we find the place and space to support every person in our community, equitably, simply by being more present for one another and going from there.

Maybe it’s time for a change.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

Jasmine M. Pulido is a Filipina American writer-activist, small business owner, and mother. Her written work has been featured in the International Examiner, The Postscript, and Give Grief a Voice. Her work has been performed through Velasco Arts and Bindlestiff Studio. She recently wrote her first play, “The Master’s Tool” exploring the struggles of BIPOC folks in Equity, Diversity, Inclusion work in white-dominated nonprofit workplaces. Jasmine is pursuing her Master of Arts in Social Change at Starr King School for the Ministry. She writes a bi-weekly substack called “Liberation Library” and is currently working on her first novel.

📸 Featured Image: Photo via Iassedesignen/

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