Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book Clubs and Theories of Time

A useful tool of thought that I learned in one of my college classes is first-order and second-order desires. A first-order desire is a want ("I want pie"). A second-order desire is a wanting to want ("I want to want to go running"--a second-order desire I've expressed many, many times). What we say are first-order desires are often second-order ones, especially when it comes to things we think would be good for us. This has been a constant source of frustration in leading book clubs in the past. A lot more people say they are interested in reading books than actually read them. Being part of a book club requires foresight, and what potential members often indicate is a first-order desire ("I want to be in a book club!") is actually a second-order one ("I want to want to be in a book club, because I know it's good for me to read more books; but I don't really want it more than I want _____").

Another useful tool of thought I gained in college from my friend Dave, who helped me administer a campus book club. When we would work to recruit, it was usually an exercise in futility, and the result was a good cop/bad cop situation. I'd handle the pleasant invitation, and when (inevitably) excuses were given why the person couldn't join, bad cop stepped in. Here's how a conversation would go:

Unsuspecting nonmember: "I'd love to join, but I don't have time."

Dave: "You don't have time, or you don't want to make the time?"

UN: "I don't have time."

D: "Do you have time to hang out with friends? to go to the Acorn? to watch TV? to play Halo? [insert whatever activities the other person enjoyed]"

UN: "Well, yes, but--"

D: "It's fine if you don't want to join, but don't say that you don't have time. You have the time, you just choose to spend it in some other way."

(For the record--lest anyone think what I'm advocating is universal book club membership--it's fine to not join a book club. I'm using book clubs in this post because it is the best example I've run across in my experience of first- and second-order desires. So, please, don't feel guilty about not being in a book club. But do feel guilty about not reading the book you said you would read.)

I don't know if you caught it, but two views of time are expressed here. One is what we typically hear, that time is a bandit: time is against you, so you need to take what you can get. Time is being poured into a pocket with holes, and all you can do is catch what you can catch. The second view is that time is a trust, something over which we must be good stewards. It is money that we budget and allocate.

I entered college with the first view of time. My time always seemed to get away from me. During my second semester of freshmen year, I received calls from my family asking if I had a job yet. "A job?" I responded, incredulous. "How would I ever have time for a job?"

Fast forward six months, when I stopped playing video games. Amazingly, six to eight hours per day opened up. I'd love to say that I used this time wisely; my grades that semester would say otherwise. I did, however, have time for a job. But the point isn't how I used my time; the point is that I had my time to use.

I remember a story Abby told me about one of her classes. It was a hard class that required her to pore over the readings two or three times to make any sense of them. While she was taking this class, she was also working a lot and still finding some time to spend with me. (By the way, I will say that Abby is one of the best time stewards I know--she's very disciplined in general and deserves praise for it.) Before one of this class's sessions, a fellow student was complaining that she didn't understand the reading, and Abby said that she didn't understand it at first either but that it became more understandable on her second or third read. The other student, who I'm guessing had about as much time as Abby, said cutting words: "It must be nice to have the time to read it more than once."

Now, are there situations where people really do not have time? I'm sure there are. Are you one of those people who really doesn't have time? Probably not.

It's easy to trick ourselves into thinking we don't have time. When we view time as a bandit, it is something that always seems to sneak in and take from us what we want. But what we view as a malignant force is often our own laziness or lack of self-discipline.

To take another example from college, my freshman and sophomore years, I found it very difficult to complete my homework on time, and I was always rushing through my Sundays to try to complete it. Sometime during my junior year, I heard a sermon on the concept of Sabbath, and I realized that I didn't have a day of rest. I committed to working toward a day of rest. I made a concerted effort to finish all of my homework by Saturday night and leave my Sundays open. And you know what? I was able to get everything done. Not only that, but my time (and thus my life) did not feel outside of my control. (Most of the time, anyway. I'm not perfect.)

So what's the point here? I said it's not to get you to join book clubs, so don't worry. I think one of the points of what I'm saying is that we need to be careful not to lie about our time--either to ourselves or to others. If I say I don't have time for someone or something and then do something frivolous, I'm telling that person or thing, "That frivolous thing is more important than you." It's fine to have chores to do or to not always want to hang out with others (trust me--if anyone knows that, it's me). It's fine if you want to do something frivolous and tell the truth about it. But don't lie to yourself by saying you have so much to do and then wasting time. Because people can see through excuses. Thankfully, there is grace, as I have hurt many people with my excuses.

The base point is this: if someone looked at how you spend your time, would it reflect what you say matters to you? (Last night, an outsider looking in might think FreeCell was important to me--trust me, I am not beyond the scope of this lesson.) You can tell what your first-order desires are by how you spend your time. You can tell your second-order desires by things you wish you did more of but don't. Audit your time. Time is a trust, a stewardship. And as with all stewardships, I think Luke 16:9-11 applies:
I tell you, use worldly wealth [time?] to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?


  1. Wonderful post. As you well know from Abby, success in grad school is even more dependent on being a good time steward, and here people are even more inclined to say that they are "too busy." Thus, I still have the opportunity to interrogate people with the methods discussed above whenever I'm trying to get a group together (e.g.this summer I'm doing two book groups). : )

    One thing I think is worth noting here is how there are important social factors are in changing people's use of time. Just as you noted Abby's good use of time (which probably encourages you to do better) my office-mate (and best male friend I have here) is EXTREMELY productive and good with his time. Thus, he and I often have discussions about how to best use our respective schedules to achieve our second-order desires. Its not exactly like we are "time accountability partners," but we are in some informal way. Having someone like him around encourages me to do better, and I notice when he is gone that I have a harder time keeping myself on my schedule. I suspect this goes for a lot of people.

  2. This reminded me of Star Trek: Generations when Soran is talking about how Time is a predator that stalks us, while Picard answers that time is a companion that goes with us on the journey.

  3. Dave, your comments seriously changed the way I view time. Kudos to you. Also, you're right about your second point. I remember Julie saying that she used to come to class more just knowing that you and I were in the same class with her. I don't know if that's guilt or accountability, but I'll take it. :-)

    J-Wolf, I laughed at what you said, but I wouldn't doubt it if, somewhere in the back of my mind, I was thinking of Star Trek: Generations. That is my favorite of the Star Trek movies (just because of the geek out that happened seeing Picard and Kirk together on the same screen).

  4. Well said, Jon. I have to work on being a better steward of "my" time quite often, especially since I don't usually have deadlines for anything at this point in my life.