- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

During a cocktail party scene on a recent episode of the HBO series “K Street,” one of the central characters is asked by a colleague how she is doing.

“Busy,” she says with a sigh. He sympathizes, saying he is busy, too.

It’s a common complaint, not only in Washington — real or fictional — but across the country. Many Americans say they are underslept and overscheduled.

That worries John de Graaf, national coordinator for today’s Take Back Your Time Day, an event supported by the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy at Cornell University and a group called the Simplicity Forum. Their goal is to raise awareness about the “time famine” they say is afflicting Americans.

“If the core of the American dream is ‘How much can we produce and consume?’ that really does force us to work longer … and it really does leave out other core values,” says Mr. de Graaf, co-author of the book “Affluenza.”

Take Back Your Time Day has been met with skepticism from some conservatives.

“It’s hard work being a left-wing kook these days,” economist Bruce Bartlett wrote of the day in National Review. “On top of anti-globalization demonstrations and anti-war protests, there is always some new issue to organize.”

Despite their concerns about the agenda behind Take Back Your Time Day, some conservatives support the pursuit of simpler living.

“This crosses various ideological areas,” says Janice Crouse, a senior fellow at the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank of Concerned Women for America. “I think they have hit a hot button for most Americans. There is a family-time famine. People don’t have time to eat together.”

But the day’s title strikes her as “a little offensive,” Mrs. Crouse says. Take Back Your Time Day “has kind of an arrogant tone, like there is some conspiracy, or like someone else is taking [Americans time] away.”

She agrees “we have all fallen into the overwork habit” and that something ought to change. “Not that there needs to be a government program to fix it,” she adds.

“There is an agenda here for families, and for emotional and spiritual well-being,” says Dr. Richard Swenson, author of “The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits.”

Dr. Swenson sayshesees the time famine through the lens of religion. “I look at the life of Jesus. He never hurried; he never ran. Now, for all of us, the person who is standing in front of us is an obstacle.”

In organizing Take Back Your Time Day, Mr. de Graaf “has made a concerted effort to reach out to both sides of the spectrum,” Dr. Swenson says.

But even sympathetic conservatives question whether a single day can promote such goals.

“[The day] may be a good idea, but the mentality behind such things does kind of bother me,” says Bruce Thornton, professor of classics and humanities at the California SttateUniversity-Fresno and author of “Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge.”

“The assumption behind this is the typical: People have to be guided into doing the right thing, they don’t make choices on their own, they don’t realize they’re spending too much time away from family, and [by having this day] we will inform them, and then they’ll just wake up and say, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s spend more time with our family.’”

Mr. Thornton sees a Luddite agenda at work. “You know what it strikes me as? A ‘Gee, isn’t modernity a miserable experience’ thing. Gee, how awful it is. Compared to what, the Middle Ages? The Black Death? It’s like this cliche of modernism that the modern world is so bad, we’re so harried.”

Some have accused Mr. de Graaf and his supporters of promoting a shortened workweek, which has produced economic stagnation in France. Mr. de Graaf says, “We don’t have to adopt all their policies, but we should adopt some of the conversations [Europeans] are having.”

Americans “talk of [Europeans] as wimps, but the fact is they work fewer hours than we do for a reason: Stuff is nice to have but at a certain point it ends up taking over your life,” Mr. de Graaf says. “If you don’t make time for leisure, and some long dinners with wine, life gets out of balance.”

Supporters are aware they might be considered “tree-huggers living in the forest wearing leaves as shoes,” says Carol Holst, founder and director of Seeds of Simplicity, a nonprofit organization.

Take Back Your Time Day, press materials say, is modeled on “the first Earth Day, which brought a new environmental awareness to America, leading within two years to the passage of the most significant ecological legislation in our history.” But Ms. Holst said the event shouldn’t be confused with coercive government policies.

“Voluntary simplicity is about looking forward. It celebrates free choice,” she says. “We don’t tell anyone how to live.”

Mr. de Graaf does not have a rosy vision of how things will be after today.

“There is a big sense of resignation about any possibility of changing things,” he says. “People say, ‘Yeah, you are on the right track, and I wish it was different,’ but Americans are too caught up. That is what we hear.”

Most hardworking Americans will struggle to find time for any of today’s numerous Take Back Your Time Day activities — potlucks, church discussion groups, teach-ins at universities and more — scheduled around the nation.

“It’s a gigantic political experiment to see if there is anything we can lock arms on and march into the future with,” Dr. Swenson says. “I’m not sure of the final answer, because it is a bitterly polarized nation, and once you start to align yourself with someone of the opposite political stripe, you are risking your reputation.”

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