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Susan E. Haddox A Sense of Ha’Olam

Time, and how we conceive of it, is important for how we nurture relationships in these neo-liberal authoritarian times. Qoheleth 3:11 offers some helpful perspective on the matter. It reads: “[God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, [God] has put a sense of ha‘olam in their minds, but they cannot find out what God is doing from beginning to end.” The key term ha‘olam in this passage is difficult to translate.[1] ‘Olam can refer to the distant past, the distant future, the age, or eternity. For the purposes of these comments, I am playing with the translation “the eternal present.” Qoheleth makes the point that although human beings have limited understanding, we have the sense of a larger picture. We have a concept of time that extends beyond our own existence backward and forward, but we have no control of what happens beyond us. What we see of the past and future serves to remind us of the transience of our efforts, but we still seek meaning. Using Qoheleth, I will raise three issues about time. The first is the way we construct and conceive of time. The second is who we include in that construction of time. The third is how these ideas of time might apply as we work toward just and equitable relationships. Each of these issues will needfully be skeletal in form, as the construction of time in this panel is short, but I hope they cultivate thought.

Although we all experience time, the way human cultures think about and perceive it varies considerably. In our neo-liberal culture, time is linear and, usually, urgent. Time is an arrow, we often think, that moves forward and not backward, and can easily be lost. We divide time into regularized segments: millennia, centuries, years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds, milliseconds, nanoseconds…the divisions get smaller every year as we find ways to measure smaller and smaller segments. We talk about time slipping away, seconds ticking by. We often equate time with productivity and money. Time is money, we say. We “spend” time. We “waste” time. Time is a commodity in this neo-liberal age, just like everything else.

This, of course, is not the only way to construct time. The classes I teach on negotiating diversity repeatedly touch on the issue. In Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, now a classic for training in cross-cultural medicine, one of the many conflicts that the featured Hmong family faces with western medicine and culture is the idea of time.[2] Traditional Hmong village life oriented time to the rhythms of the natural and agricultural world, to cockcrow and pig-feeding time, to rice planting and harvesting, not to artificial divisions like hours and years. Time is ordered around events, not numbers. Similarly in Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Lakota elder Dan criticizes western historians for always wanting to confine time to numbered years and what was written, rather than living in a more mythic sense of time, in which the past and the present are not strictly separated.[3] Dan notes that Christians make an exception for talking about Jesus, who is not relegated to the past. Thus, my first point is that as we cultivate relationships, we should think about how we are constructing time. Is time yet another commodity for which we compete, or does it reflect an organic reality or even mythic space in which we can recognize each other?

The second point is who counts in time. I recently heard a lecture by trans poet Cameron Awkward-Rich, who, in addition to writing poetry, is working on documenting the presence of trans persons in news accounts at the turn of the 20th century. He made the comment that not only have trans people been written out of the past, appearing only in the context of violence, either as victims of crime or in arrest records for gender transgression, but those who are recognized, even often today, are labeled as being ahead of their time. In this way, not only are trans people erased from the past, but also from the present, and are instead pushed into the future. On the same day as the lecture, I read an interview with David Treuer, author of Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, who wrote the book as a counter to Dee Brown’s famous Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, because he felt that the latter confined Native American culture to the past, denying the validity of the peoples and cultures still existing.[4] Both cases deny people’s existence and value in the present. Qoheleth comes to the conclusion that the present is what matters – the past is already forgotten, the future is out of our control, so the present is the only time we can find meaning. Yet that present is not a narrow, agnostic period, but the eternal present, imbued with connection to the past and future. So the second point is – who do we include, or exclude, in our conception of the present?

The third point stems from the first two, applying those thoughts to our cultivation of relationships. In her web article, “White Women Doing White Supremacy in Nonprofit Culture,” Heather Laine Talley writes: “Women have inherited patriarchal, capitalist models of leadership. A focus on growing, expanding, or working towards an ambitious vision often trumps what is happening in the present moment.”[5] Similar to the way that Awkward-Rich described trans people as being pushed out of the present into some not-yet-realized inclusive future, Talley notes that neo-liberal attitudes toward time and work, pushing for progress and focusing on the future, further exclude those already marginalized in the present. Such a focus often undermines the cultivation of those very relationships that are necessary to bring a better future into existence. So, the third point is that relationships, especially productive feminist, womanist, and queer relationships, cannot be governed by neo-liberal concepts of time. Such concepts subjugate full personhood to an abstract idea of progress and product. They value doing over being and impede the hard and necessary work of recognizing individuals and negotiating difference.

In conclusion, having a sense of ha‘olam as the eternal present – a moment outside of the urgent, commodified, linear, segmented neo-liberal age – can provide a space where we can see, hear, be present with, and respond to other people, especially across difference, to create a more just and inclusive present. We may, perhaps, read a little further in Qoheleth and cultivate those relationships by eating, drinking, and taking pleasure together in our common toil.


[1] Brian P. Gault, “A Reexamination of ‘Eternity’ in Ecclesiastes 3:11,” in Bibliotecha Sacra 165 (2008), 39–57.

[2] Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997).

[3] Kent Nerburn and Dan, Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder (New World Library, 1994).

[4] Lily Rothman, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Author David Treuer on Why We Need to Change the Way Indian Stories Are Told,” Time, January 24, 2019,

[5] Heather Laine Talley, “White Women Doing White Supremacy in Nonprofit Culture,” Woke@Work, Equity in the Center, October 2, 2019,

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Susan E. Haddox,

is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at University of Mount Union, Alliance, OH, USA. Her research interests focus on gender, especially masculinity studies, in the Hebrew Bible. Among her publications is Metaphor and Masculinity in Hosea (Lang, 2011).

© Susan E. Haddox, 2020,, ISSN 1661-3317