It’s funny how one gets inspired about a speech.

2 weeks ago, during a round robin at my Speaking Club – a pastime I recommend for anyone seeking to train – a speaker said something which made me think. Oddly, it coincided with a CD I’d listened to en route to the venue.

Reader – What time is it? If I ask you this, you look at your watch and tell me, simples. But let me change the order of the words.

What is it, time? Philosophical questions tend to result in confusion when asked without context, but if you were asked THAT question, how would you respond?

St Augustine said, “For what is time? Who is able easily and briefly to explain it? Surely we understand well enough when we speak of it. What then is time? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to someone, plainly I know not.”

Newton said time was absolute, whether the universe was here or not. Leibnitz said time is merely the order of events and has no independent existence. Einstein agreed, and expanded slightly by saying time has no independence apart from the order of events by which we measure it. (That’s my preferred definition.) A dictionary definition defines time as “a continuum in which events succeed one another from the past, through present to future.”

Which is a great answer when a stranger asks, ‘What’s the time?’

For something which does not actually exist, it is very powerful.

Probably thousands of years ago, man decided that their current method for measuring time was not efficient. Telling the time consisted of saying ‘It’s day’ and ‘It’s night’. Pretty good prior to fire and its associated light meant we could work AT night, after which this separation of two time periods did not suffice.

Over, well, time, man developed a 24-hour, 1,440 minute, 361,440 second system that endures even now. And that defined us as a species. I say that because we are now slaves to that development.

We now have a name for somewhere we have to be as a group for an agreed purpose. In the context of the speech I gave AT Speakers Club, we call this meeting Speakers Club.

Einstein, however, would say that we do not come to Speakers Club at 7.15pm – he would say that Speakers Club comes to 7.15 every other Thursday. That time exists, or has been appointed regardless of Speakers Club, therefore we have to come to it for Speakers Club to exist. I see your heads spinning.

How important is time to us?

There was a study conducted by two Princeton University Psychologists that focused on the story of the Good Samaritan. This was held in a seminary for trainee priests, who were first surveyed as to why they had chosen to become priests. The responses included spiritual development of the self, service to God, service to their fellow man, and so on. After the survey, the ‘proper’ experiment began.

The seminary students were given an assignment to prepare a sermon for delivery to their peers. Half the students were told to prepare their sermon on the story of the Good Samaritan; the other half were given various alternative topics. Once the assignment was completed, the student was then told to go to a certain building on campus to present their sermon.

But there was a setup that would take the students by surprise. An actor was hired to portray someone who had been mugged and left beaten up in an alley; the same alley that each student would have to pass on their way to the presentation building.  There was also one additional variable introduced by the researchers.  Some of the seminarians were told to hurry because they were running late while the others were told to take their time because they were early.

The researchers uncovered a surprising result.  Each student was confronted with what seemed to be a real-life situation of someone in need. But only 10% of the students who were told to hurry stopped to help. 63% of the students who were told that they had extra time offered assistance.

The researchers concluded that it didn’t matter if your life goal was to help people. What mattered most was that you were not in a hurry. The words, “You’re late” and “hurry” turned ordinarily compassionate people into people who were indifferent to suffering.

I pride myself on punctuality because I think it demonstrates respect to those who rely on my being in a certain place at a certain time. Consequently, if I am running late, I get anxious, and if someone else is causing me to be late I wish death upon them. You may also feel varying levels of angst when running behind time.

Therefore, something that does not exist, wholly created and influenced by man himself, has caused man to get angry and, particularly on our roads, to do absolutely extraordinary and even stupid things to make up a second or two.

All that said, imagine a life without the tyranny of the clock. Imagine floating in late for an important meeting, turning up for a date with a beautiful woman half an hour after arranged, buying all your Christmas presents on Boxing Day, or turning up for Speakers Club at 9pm!

Nevertheless, while being late can be disastrous, there is one attitude to time that I hate. I hate it when I make an appointment to meet somebody at a certain time and place and they conclude this agreement by stating that this agreement is deserving of the over-used, mainly American adjective, Awesome.

A volcano is awesome. A nuclear explosion is awesome.

Being on time is convenient. Even though there’s no such thing.