Billable Hours and The Wisdom of the Mockingbird

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The mockingbird

opens his throat

among the thorns

for his own reasons

but doesn’t mind 

if we pause

to listen

and learn something

for ourselves;

he doesn’t stop,

he nods

his gray head

with the frightfully bright eyes,

he flirts 

his supple tail,

he says:

listen, if you would listen.

There’s no end

to good talk,

to passion songs,

to the melodies

that say

this branch, 

this tree is mine,

to the wholesome

happiness

of being alive

on a patch

of this green earth

in the deep

pleasures of summer.

What a bird!

Your clocks, he says plainly,

which are always ticking,

do not have to be listened to.

The spirit of his every word.

—Mary Oliver, “Deep Summer”

For many of us our stock in trade is the billable hour. There’s a lot written about its alternatives, its virtues and its vices. But in spite of all that’s been written, it is (for most of us) the foundational element of our workday.  Like it or not, for better or for worse, it’s a big part of our world. And (at least for now) it’s not going anywhere.

Which is all the more reason to recognize the ways in which its orientation can be soul killing. To account for 1/10th of your every hour (as important as that might be to firm income) is something that sooner or later will drive you bat shit crazy. We are not meant to carve out how we spend our days in clearly defined segments of a tenth of an hour. We are designed to be present to our world. And to connect to that world and to those around us.

When we have to account for how we spend our time in 6 minute increments, time becomes our enemy. Instead of being the subject of our own time, we become its target and its victim. And at the end of the day, we find that we haven’t truly had a moment for ourselves. Not a single moment to relax and just be in our world.

I imagine that the vast majority of folks who show up in therapists’ waiting rooms (or in substance abuse clinics) suffer from some stress related condition. There are thousands of psychological treatises on stress, but my favorite perspective comes from a Celtic philosopher who suggested that all stress results from a perverted relationship to time.

When we believe all time has to be structured, we fall for the delusion that there’s not enough time to do those things we most desire. And when we do that, we are blind to the reality that this universe, in its abundance, has created plenty of time. There is time to truly be in this world. There is time to connect to where you are and to those whom you love. There is more than enough time.

We’re not going to do away with the billable hour. And to attend to it will remain an important part of creating the income we use to feed and care for our families and support those who work with us. But we can remain aware of how anxiety producing it can be to orient ourselves to our lives in that way. And we can remind ourselves that the billable hour, while necessary, is only a tool…and a very limited one at that.

Maybe, just maybe, when we’re done with the time capturing component of our work, we can step back. We can remind ourselves that we don’t have to live all parts of our lives in overly structured tenth of an hour increments. That our clocks, which are always ticking, don’t have to be listened to. Maybe the mockingbird will be our teacher…


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