On Wasted Time

Someone, we hear, is just “wasting his time” in college, in the job he has, or on the person who fascinates him. Wasted time seems downright culpable. Our time should have been directed to more useful purposes. Instead, we frittered it away in some project that will never amount to much. We go this way only once. Best to make optimum use of the little time we are given.

Though not quite verbatim, I associate wasted time with The Little Prince. In my memory, the passage goes: “The only time that counts is the time that you waste with your friends.” The connotations of the word “waste” are rather curious.

Rumors to the contrary, we live in an abundant world. To prepare a good dinner, many things must be wasted. We eat the carrots but not its leaves. Rabbits, for all I know, may eat the leaves but not the carrots. What were called “garbage trucks” in my youth, are called “Waste Management Systems” today, even though they do the same thing. “Waste” sounds better than “garbage.”

When we bluntly disagree with someone’s opinion, however, we explode: “That’s just garbage!” This expression is more effective than: “Your views are a waste of breath.” But we do say of some talented person who has spent his life in frivolity: “What a waste!”

Yet the Saint-Exupéry reference has its truth. Nothing is worse than a conversation in which the person speaking to us is constantly checking the time and looking around the room. The body message is: “I have something more ‘important’ to do.”

And important things always remain to be finished. The highest things do not take place as if the world of useful things did not exist. Smaller things must occur before greater things can come into view. Every second of our lives is important in the sense that in it, we can do something that leads to damnation or to glory, depending on what it is.

Only the time we waste with our friends counts. Again, the world is filled with an abundance of time even in our limited life-spans. We can “make” things happen, or let them happen to us. The time we waste with our friends is precisely the time when we do not want to be anywhere else. We are already where we want to be.


Moreover, spending time with our friends does not imply having a prearranged agenda of things to talk about. Malcolm Muggeridge entitled his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time. I have always loved that title and the life that it implied. In one sense, it could mean that Muggeridge’s life was spent in what Josef Pieper called “leisure.” It implied a life beyond necessity and work when we can set our sights on figuring what it is all about. If we never do this reflection on what is, we will have lived a life that is not fully human.

Thus, when we “waste” our time with our friends, we mean that we do not want to be anywhere else. I suppose “eternal life” itself can be understood in this way also – the not wanting to be anywhere else, the no longer being “wayfarers and pilgrims” in this world. The only time that counts is the time we waste with our friends.

What does this “time that counts” mean? Time itself is counting of before and after. It passes, and we with it. Yet our passing is not directed at nothing. It is directed to a presence, to the kind of presence we experience when wasting time with our friends. We do not want to be someplace else. We are already where we want to be.

In wasted time we can talk about nonsensical things as well as great things and things that are here but slipping away. As I look back on the life of my recently deceased brother, his marriage strikes me, in retrospect, to have been a chronology of wasted time. I suppose all good marriages are like that. The spouses really do not want to be anywhere else. I think too of Chesterton’s description of a family on the Eve of Christmas. They should shut their doors and just be there about the fire with those they love and who love them.

In the offering of a libation to the gods, one is to pour a little of the wine on the ground, to waste it, to show that not everything is necessary. From the point of views of God’s creation, He did not “need” to create. In a paradoxical sense, He wasted His time tossing us out there to see what we might do. In the end, He seems simply to have wanted us to “waste” our time with Him for eternity. I will buy that thesis!


*Image: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by George Seurat, 1889 (completed) [Art Institute of Chicago] Note: Pointilism (originally a derisive term), as developed by Seurat and Paul Signac, involved the application of tiny dots of color, as seen below (from the area in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte just above the black dog):

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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