In conversation with Karlheinz Geißler
Slow down! Pronto!
Miriam Holzapfel talks to Karlheinz Geißler about timing, rhythm and the allure of having to wait
Professor Geißler, we had an appointment for 11 a.m. and I had actually rushed to make sure I would be on time. But when I reached your front door, I started to have doubts. Is punctuality important for you at all?
Well, as you can see: I'm in a wheelchair because I contracted polio as a child. Ten years ago I could still walk, but I could never accelerate my stride under my own steam. Speed was out of the question. I could never really hurry. A life like mine forces you to view time through a different prism. You need to learn how to wait, to tolerate lulls in activity, periods of respite; you need the ability to accept a leisurely pace – and to make all of this passing time productive. And for those reasons, no: punctuality is not key to the way I think.
How do you arrange to meet others then?
I don't make appointments for specific times. I make them for specific periods. I say, "Drop by between 11 and noon," or "Come in the late morning." Incidentally, primitive peoples and other societies do just that, ones that aren't quite as affluent. We often find this very appealing, just think of Italy where they don't take punctuality so seriously. Broadly speaking, time is a constraint on our society.
If you don't go by the clock, how do you manage your schedule?
At some point you develop a very good feel for passing time, especially if you don't clock-watch. And that's good enough for me. I look at the sun and know what time of day it is. I can sense when it's midday or when it's time to do something specific. For example, I make myself an espresso of a morning before settling down at my computer. Rituals like that help me structure my day, and I always know which point I have reached and which phase is up next.
Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Geißler was a university professor in Munich until his retirement. He is a cofounder of the German Society for Time Policy and the project “Ecology of Time.” (Image: Private)
Is this sense of time good enough to catch trains, for example? They don’t depart at an approximate time, they leave on the dot.
Well that's simply not true. Rail services are very elastic time-wise. Their punctuality is an illusion. Often enough, people only catch trains because they have been delayed. If I want to travel from Frankfurt to Munich, which I do quite frequently, then I head for the station when I'm ready and usually a train comes earlier than I expect. I'm sure to arrive at my destination eventually – and that's the main thing. Punctuality is not something you should count on, especially if you are traveling by train. Car users certainly don't expect to arrive right on schedule at the end of a long drive. I was a consultant for the German Railways Board for a while and always told them not to feature punctuality in their advertising – because it always prompts disappointment. What matters is that the train is actually running, is safe and offers a modicum of comfort. In other respects, our society demands a great deal of flexibility, and a little tardiness creates all kinds of opportunities. Waiting for a train, for example, can be very productive. The philosopher Walter Benjamin once put it roughly like this: the longer I have to stand around, the more attractive the women become.
More recently, Covid-19 has resulted in lots of pauses, intervals and waiting – which plenty of people likely found less attractive. As a student of time, how did you experience this slowdown?
That was obviously a very fascinating time for me. The interesting thing is that the pandemic slammed the brakes on society with so little warning. However, the speed of society didn't really decline as such. True, the pace slowed in many areas: lots of people no longer had to rush out in the morning or dive into a shop on the way home. But, on the other hand, there were suddenly completely new time pressures, as the working day became very condensed. Everything had to be recalibrated, you had to decide for yourself when to get up, when to start work and when to take a break to care for a member of your family or household. Many more time-related decisions had to be made during the pandemic, not fewer. For the simple reason that life in our society had slowed down. And you have to learn how to do all that from scratch, how to organize your own life, and how to keep your personal and professional spheres separate.
How can I learn to live more in sync with my own inner clock?
Well, by not always checking your watch. Watches impose certain strictures and, when I take mine off, I am free to dispose of my time as I see fit again. To allocate it according to the demands of situations, rather than starting and stopping when my watch says its time. Put differently, I have to structure my time according to its quality – whereas clocks only show the quantity. For example, schools always start at 8 a.m. in Germany, regardless of whether the children are still tired or not. That makes no sense whatsoever. It would be better for school days to begin when kids are genuinely capable of learning, i.e. if a kind of flextime was introduced. Children and parents would then be asked to consult their own body clocks, rather than the ones on the wall. If you like, this has been one advantage of the pandemic: that formal structures have largely been suppressed and people can rediscover their natural rhythms. Rituals are helpful in this respect. Otherwise you can end up standing at the stove and stirring the soup with your cellphone – because your head is still crammed full of work. During the course of a day, you need to leave the previous day behind. And you can do that best by defining transitions and taking breaks. If you don't succeed in managing your own time, higher stress levels are the inevitable outcome.
Overall, speed is welcomed in our workaday world, whereas slowness is often seen as a failing. Is speed's positive reputation unjustified?
Not in my view. We owe a lot to speed and it is understandable for commerce to prioritize it – because in that domain time literally is money. You have to pick up the pace if you don't want to lose out. Ultimately, that generates economic growth. So speed has fantastic benefits, it makes us affluent. The most money can be earned where speed is absolutely paramount, where things have to happen very, very quickly. On the stock market, for example. In the world of finance, all time is charged monetarily. Conversely, things that can't be accelerated are not typically paid very well. Caring for others, for example. But there are limitations to all of this, and you have to look closely – to see where speed really is necessary and makes sense. Humans can't keep accelerating the whole time, because acceleration consumes resources. To enjoy really rewarding lives, we also need times that cannot be counted as a cost. These times too are extremely important and productive. For example, you can't permanently cut back on sleep if you want to feel fit. So while speed is the source of prosperity, real satisfaction derives from slowness.
You mean, we shouldn't fundamentally prioritize one type of time over the other?
Absolutely not! I'm a fan of diversity, even when it comes to time. There are lots of different types of time and all of them have something to offer. Otherwise they wouldn't exist. So we need to work out which type offers which productive benefit, and how we can best create a mix that we find fulfilling. Put differently, we need to distinguish between the beat and the rhythm. If we base our schedules on clocks, we structure it by beat – and that can be accelerated. Beat means repetition without deviation: every hour is the same length and if one isn't, it means you need a new clock. Things work differently in the natural world. Nature is structured by its rhythms, and we can align ourselves with them accordingly. Different times are required in winter and summer. The days vary in length, depending on the season. There are rest phases and periods of acceleration, and they all have their legitimacy and duration. For this reason, there are no peoples on earth who completely lack rhythm, who don't sing and dance. But there are plenty who don't own clocks.
Does that mean that we are born with rhythm, that– unlike beat –it is innate to us?
Exactly, all life is rhythmical. And when time problems arise, rhythm always offers the solution. That's why I'm also an advocate of distributing our retirements over our entire lives. That could mean taking longer vacations or parents taking more time off to care for their children. Some countries are already supporting and financing these effective and symbolic actions, actions that single out those societies that acknowledge the diversity of time. It's also an important weapon against climate change. We need more slowness. Pronto!
It isn't just slowness that most people dislike. The same also applies to waiting. Why is that?
Waiting takes different forms. One type is very aggravating: when somebody else makes us wait, because that's always about exploiting power they have to control you. You end up sitting in an antechamber, a long corridor or drafty room, and feel like you are under the thumb of that person's organization. But there's another kind of waiting, one that is highly productive. Farmers with an abundance of patience harvest the best apples and potatoes. There's nothing that can be accelerated there. Even involuntary waiting – because a train hasn't arrived or a storm is blowing over – can be compensated by other things that are beneficial for us. That includes engaging with others. For example, rather than wasting the time, you can use it to call someone you haven't heard from for ages, or you can chat to somebody else in the same predicament. Or you can simply take a nice, deep breath.
So I experience time as more pleasant if I embrace the situation at hand, rather than trying to extricate myself from it? Is that right?
Yes, we need to accept such situations and the various types of time each one offers us. Of course, there will always be occasions when speed is imperative, and that's absolutely fine. But there are others when it is redundant. And we need to recognize that, and learn to distinguish between them. And to develop a feel for time. It's about connecting with our environment, with our social space and with Nature. If we succeed, that makes us happy – no matter what type of time it is.
Miriam Holzapfel studied Cultural Studies and works as an editor and copywriter.