The expression “I need to kill some time” has long baffled me. Time is time, life is life, and conscious awareness is rich and glorious, even if you’ve just started a four-hour train ride, or the friend you’re meeting just told you she’ll be at least an hour late and you’ve already settled into your seat at the café. You want to do something with your time that will serve you well: make you happy, complete work you’ve been worrying about, spark creativity — whatever you might need at this particular moment — but there is no need to kill it. The mere thought of killing time saddens me. Time is alive when we are alive. To truly kill your own time, you’d have to kill yourself.
I’m familiar with the mindset that inspired this expression, and it goes against my conception of life — at least the conception I try to embrace. I’ll admit that I can understand the sentiment sometimes. I’m waiting in the cold for the bus that will take me to Manhattan, and the guy next to me announces that the bus company texted that the bus is an hour delayed. So now I’m outside the dingy Alewife subway station in Cambridge, MA. There’s no time to leave and come back: that would be too stressful for a disorganized soul like me. I was so proud of myself for getting myself together and arriving on time for this early trip; I don’t want to ruin that now.
I could wander a bit right inside the station, but that doesn’t seem very exciting. What would I see there? A little Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk and people rushing downstairs to make the next train? Not my idea of a scintillating time. Sure, I could order a coffee to give myself something to do, but that would… I hate to say it, but a tiny piece of me wants to say that this would be a strategy to kill time.
That piece is only a small fraction of me, though. I can shift my perception and see it all through a radically different lens. It’s been many years since I’ve had coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s just not what I choose when I have more options: cafés that strike me as more intriguing or inviting. But I remember enjoying this coffee a lot at a friend’s mother’s house, many years ago. This was her favorite coffee; she kept telling me and my friend how much she loved it. She poured it from a box — she had gotten a little box of coffee to be sure she’d have enough for me and my friend. Coffee from a box in my friend’s mother’s kitchen: something about it entranced me.
I remember this scene and think about this lover of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee: warm, funny, and always supportive with me, though I know the story was more complex with many others. She died many years ago, and she hasn’t entered my conscious mind in quite a while. I picture times with her, and with her extended family, who I got to know through the years. I’m happy for the occasion to recall someone who made a large impression on me, but who had escaped my thought process for many years. Then I look at my watch and realize I don’t even have much time to order coffee: the time passed just through reminiscing. I decide to return to the bus stop to ensure that I get a good seat. But I tell myself to remember to choose Dunkin’ Donuts sometime when I want coffee; there are certainly plenty of shops all around me. It’s been long enough that this would be a novel experience for me: I don’t have a clear memory of how it tasted, though I know I enjoyed it.
A few weeks later, I try a coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts right nearby, enjoying the taste, smiling, telling myself to remember that this is a viable option, even though other places seem cooler and more atmospheric, and their coffee is, in theory, higher quality. “You need to be slightly less of a snob,” I tell myself, and I make myself laugh — another small piece of the pleasure that has come out of my “lost” hour waiting for the New York bus. So I experience a treat I hadn’t been choosing, all because I had extra time in the Alewife subway station weeks beforehand. More important, I continue to think seriously about someone I had lost from my active repertoire of thought, recalling special times and connections.
Sure, if someone had given me the choice of leaving for Manhattan on time vs. hanging out for an hour in the Alewife subway station, I would have chosen to get going on time. But that might just be the wrong choice. I’ll never know what would have happened if the bus had left on time. Would the extra hour in Manhattan have been richer than my memories and musings in the subway station? As crazy as this sounds, I’m just not sure, even though my love for New York is intense and I don’t get there nearly as often as I’d like.
This is just one example of time that seemed wasted, lost, and hard to get through without feeling bored and frustrated… but that turned out to be a profoundly good experience. The key is a shift in perception. Rather than asking how you can kill time, ask how you can maximize your experience, given the reality that faces you. And don’t write off experiences like waiting on line or waiting for someone at an airport because they’re generally assumed to be negative.
If you’re annoyed because the line outside the ice cream shop is much longer than you’d predicted, don’t walk away so fast, unless you’re on a tight schedule and sparing the time would cause logistical difficulties. Ask yourself: is waiting on a line while observing and listening to others on the line really any less pleasant than going home and sitting in your living room? Is it possible that the line would actually be a lot more interesting and even more fun than getting home and watching your usual TV show or fiddling with your computer?
Ask yourself why standing outside in front of an ice cream shop on a warm spring evening is an undesirable situation. Will you miss out on something else that’s more important? (You might: I’m not discounting that possibility.) If you decide to wait it out, don’t assume that the time spent on line will be useless and filled with nothing but annoyance. While standing there, you might overhear a conversation that inspires your work or makes your thought process more vibrant. You might spot the most beautiful green eyes you’ve ever seen, or notice someone carrying a knapsack that feels perfect for your own needs, the knapsack of your dreams. Maybe you’ll ask this person where they got the knapsack, you’ll buy one for yourself, and all kinds of future experiences will be easier and more enjoyable because your new knapsack will help you organize your belongings and carry them with ease.
I am well aware that some experiences are objectively negative. Acute sickness, serious accidents, traumatic encounters… some moments truly are horrific. And, while some wise souls may well suggest ways to embrace and even enjoy those moments, that’s not my focus here. My point is that some experiences that we tend to discount as useless — time to be thrown away or even killed — truly can be wonderful.
The next time you’re on a long bus ride or stuck on a seemingly endless line, try shifting your vision. How interesting that the little boy in front of you appears to idolize his older sister but seems angry with his father. Irritating as that young woman’s loud cell phone rant may seem, what might be going on with her? If you listen to what she’s saying, could you get some insight into what makes some people angry? And look at that interesting person in the purple sweater staring intently out the window. They seem indeterminate and hard to place: age, gender, and race are all unclear to you. But you have three hours left on the bus, and this person is right in front of you. Do you dare to make conversation and try to figure out some of their situation? If you do, you will surely learn something. You might even make a friend.
When possible, look at these throwaway times of waiting and other seeming annoyances as shows, not obstacles. We pay good money to see plays about families fighting, but cringe when a very real family is fighting right in front of us on the train. Hey, sit back and take in the free drama. I know it’s hard; I’ve also pouted and complained about this kind of thing. But this is a rare look at a family unraveling. It might help you make sense of your own family, or give you a really interesting conversation topic at the event you’re heading to. Lean into it and discover something.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.