Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Time, money and relationship all have richer meanings among the poor of Guatemala

by Jerry Monks, for the Inland Register

(From the May 1, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

As our flight descended onto the Guatemala City airport, one of the passengers reached in a bag he was carrying and pulled out a handful of cheap wrist watches. “Here,” he said, “put some on and put some others in your pockets.” The dollar watches were gifts for people in the village of Ixtahuacán. My friend didn’t want to risk having them confiscated by customs officials who might assume they were merchandise that was for sale. Though they weren’t as accurate as more expensive models, the watches were intended to improve the time management abilities of those who were to receive them.

In the highlands of Guatemala, groups of houses and small villages are scattered throughout miles of mountainous terrain. When someone from one area arranges to meet another “in the afternoon,” one of the parties could be in for a long wait. If both parties had watches, the wait time variability could be reduced and people’s “time” resource used more efficiently.

In industrialized areas of the world, we operate on the assumption that time is money. That principle got embedded into our free enterprise economy in the Industrial Revolution as Frederick Taylor’s scientific management concepts took hold and were later implemented by the likes of Henry Ford.

Today, we speak of the time value of money. The 15-20 percent interest rates charged on our credit cards certainly make that seem like a truism. With personal debt in the U.S. now averaging nearly 8 percent of after-tax income, the amount we pay each day for borrowing money is very close to the average income/day of natives in the Guatemala highlands.

And as a nation, each U.S. citizen is also the owner of a $22,000 share of our huge $6+ trillion national debt. It is funded largely by U.S. Treasury securities that pay interest in accordance with the time value of money.

For the poor, time is not so closely linked to money, and interest charges are not an ever-present liability. Waiting for a friend is not necessarily a waste of the time resource. It can be an opportunity to practice the virtue of patience. Or it can be a quiet time to appreciate one’s environment and get closer to his Creator.

In Guatemala, family relationships and social interactions take precedence over the efficient use of time. With grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close relatives all residing nearby, the pace of activities is governed more by the hospitality of community than by time management techniques and workplace efficiency. The poor don’t have union stewards to negotiate for them, or attorneys to settle disputes. With no credit line (or even savings accounts) families in the Highlands are not burdened with the financial and emotional stress of VISA, house, car, and other payments. They are not plagued with telemarketing schemes (no phones), or junk mail (no mail). Parents don’t have to monitor TV programs or restrict their children’s access to pornography on the internet.

We tend to view Third World economies as backward. Indeed, they are backward, relative to the standards we live by. Nevertheless, the poor have much to teach us about the real value of time, the emotional and spiritual costs we are paying for progress, and the importance of family relationships.

Our time on Earth is a gift from God, and it is not measured in money. And one of our biggest challenges here on earth is to take time to project God’s love for us into the relationships we have with others. The poor in Guatemala work at this every day.

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