A First World Problem: We Have No Time

I keep a file on my computer of miscellaneous pictures from our Joburg days. The other day, feeling nostalgic, I felt compelled to post this one on Facebook:

Skoobs bookstore
The caption read, Another thing I miss about #Joburg: Skoobs, a cappuccino served in a real mug (most often served with a pretty design on top), and people who have time to share said cappuccino. Come to think of it, that’s the thing I miss most – people who have time.

The post went on to outperform all my other recent posts. Don’t you love how Facebook screws you and tells you that for $10 it will show this post to all the people who like your page? Well, didn’t those people hit LIKE for my page precisely because they WANT to see such posts? Why should I have to pay to reach them? But I guess you can’t argue with a free service. Plus, how Facebooks is screwing us wasn’t really what I wanted to write about…

The reason the post did so well was because a lot of people responded, mostly other former expat spouses like myself who are nostalgic for the long and leisurely coffee mornings while living in South Africa. Some argued that it was a matter of having domestic help and therefore time for such extravagant pleasures, and there is some truth in that.

But I think there is a bigger underlying theme: As a general rule, people in Africa have more time than people in the Western world. Which is why people in the Western world fall in love with Africa the minute they step on its shores.

If you think about it, many of our First World Problems (or FWP) have to do with a lack of time. And, as the term suggests, most are self-imposed. It’s easy to laugh about them, as in my recent post about coyote sightings and ungainly outhouses, or in this recent article about back to school shopping in the 1970s versus today. I just about cracked up at this opening paragraph:

Back to School, 2014:

1. Take five deep breaths and say a positive affirmation. School begins in two weeks. It is the middle of July. Don’t worry, you still have time to order BPA-free bento boxes and authentic Indian tiffins made with special stainless steel that did not involve any child-labor, sweat shops or animal cruelty. Remember, you have Amazon Prime. You can get the free two day shipping and you will have plenty of time to read reviews and make this very important decision because your kids are in summer “camp” which is actually just another word for school in the summer because OH MY GOD you were so tired that day you had to have them home all day with you and you couldn’t go to your restorative flow class at yoga. And that was also the day something went terribly wrong with the homemade glitter cloud dough recipe that was supposed to go in their sensory bin and the very same day that they were out of soy milk at Starbucks and you had to immediately email corporate to let them know that duh, they should actually be selling almond milk and/ or coconut milk. Get with it Starbucks. Soy is so 90s. Ugh, but you digress. The tiffin. The bento boxes…

Go on, read the entire article, you’ll laugh out loud. If you’re a parent to school-age children, you’ll totally see yourself in the 2014 version of it.

But it’s not really a laughing matter, is it? Never since the beginning of time have we had so many gadgets at our disposal as today, gadgets for our entertainment but also our convenience that are meant to make our lives easier. And yet all they seem to do is make them more complicated. Just reading the above had me feeling out of breath:

The urgent need to research everything to death
The feeling that another parent is going to trump you with more research and better stuff
The idea that if we don’t explore all the options we somehow fail our children
The rushing around to buy the perfect props for our kids
The obsessive need to then instantly communicate our trials and accomplishments with the world via Facebook and Instagram and God knows what else that thankfully isn’t on my radar yet

About two years ago, in People who have Time and People who Don’t, I wrote this:

Americans are busy. We have no time to spare. We fill every minute of our day with activity, and when that turns out not to be enough we find ways that allow us to do ten activities at once. We complain that we never have any time, and yet when we are faced with the prospect of an empty stretch of half a morning, we sign up for yoga lessons..

While on some level we all know this, and admit that overscheduling ourselves and our children isn’t in anyone’s best interest, we struggle to change our lives.

Until we arrive in Africa and have our eyes opened.

From all my conversations with returning expats, the biggest concern by far is not how their children will catch up in school or whether they’ll make new friends or what the new job is going to be like. It is whether they can resist being sucked back into the rat race.

How can we live in the First World and have time?

You might also like: The Unannounced Playdate

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