Taking Back Our Time
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 19, 2008
Chairman Mao is not generally known for his poetry. But he wrote quite a bit of it, I guess. In one of his poems, there are these lines:
So many deeds cry out to be done,
and always urgently.
Time presses; the world moves on.
Ten thousand years is too long a time.
Seize the hour! Seize the day!
It’s become cliché, of course, to speak of how quickly time goes by. We see it most clearly in our children, I think. I shudder a little when I think that my youngest, Noah, will be twenty-one years old in just a couple of weeks. Twenty-one! I can remember when I was twenty-one (just barely now, if truth be told). Now, to have a child who’s 21: I shudder again to think how old that make me.
"Our lives are but a little gleam of time between two eternities," Carlyle wrote. The fact of the matter is that we are all living on borrowed time; none of us can tell how long our years will be numbered. But we know that it’s limited, severely. We know it won’t be ten thousand years-- and so, very often we seem in such a hurry to accomplish all we need to do—all those deeds that cry out to be done, and always urgently. It's like a New Yorker cartoon I saw not too long ago. An obvious Yuppie-type fellow is standing there at the counter in what must be a Starbucks, looking at his watch, and he's berating the clerk: "Hurry up, hurry up. I've only got a few more decades on this planet."
"We are prepared to be starved before we are hungry," Thoreau wrote, most perceptibly, way back in 1854. He saw our time famine coming. Even in these tough economic times, we live in a land of abundance, where most of want for very little, really. What we all seem to lack, desperately at times, is enough time; time to accomplish all the demands that day puts before us.
"Time is the great enemy," suggests Winifred Holtby.
"Time chops at us like an iron hoe," writes the poet Mary Oliver.
"Times does us violence," adds Simone Weil.
But from whence does this great time “famine” come? Why is there a perceived shortage of time at all? After all, we have as many hours in the day as our ancestors had—and we live longer, so we have more days to our lives; we live more productive years; so why is there, in our day and age, such a “famine” at all?
How odd it is that time-- this simple dimension of reality-- should be maligned so fiercely by otherwise rational voices... There are other, saner ways to look at it, of course: We can see time as a resource we have-- ours to manage as efficiently as we're able. "I must govern the clock, and not be governed by it," Golda Meir once wisely observed. A whole industry of books, tools, seminars, and other resources has grown up to help people "manage their time". The Massachusetts Council of Church has even scheduled a “Take Back Your Time” rally on the Boston Common for this Friday afternoon. I’d like to go—but I don’t have time to go on Friday!
Time does seem like a thief in the night sometimes: stealing away the few leisure or contemplative hours we thought we had safely tucked away. Faster, faster, all things seem to fly by... Within the lifetimes of any of us, the speed of the lives we lead has increased dramatically—even just within the past five or ten years or so. How do we respond to these lives that are already packed with too much to do-- that are already hurtling forward all too quickly? Usually, we try to cram more in, get more accomplished-- and especially, we try to move faster and faster. We have been taught that speed is the key we need to gain mastery over the world, mastery over our time.
As the external speed of our cultural accelerates, our internal speeds get dragged along as well. In his book Time Wars, Jeremy Rifkin wrote: "We have quickened the pace of life only to become less patient. We have become more organized but less spontaneous, less joyful. We are better prepared to act on the future but less able to enjoy the present and reflect on the past."
Or, as the Czech writer Milan Kundera put it: “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, and between speed and forgetting.”
We are time-famished. We are starved for authentic human moments; for genuine human contact; for life-enhancing, soul-shaking experiences; for conversation and intimacy with friends and lovers and family members—the kind of experience that pierces our being, plants new seeds of kinship, and gives the flower of love time to grow.
Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician, writes about a pathology-- a physical illness-- he calls "time sickness". Dr. Dossey says that people suffering from this illness believe that their "time is getting away [from them], that there isn't enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up." He continues: "The trouble is, the body has limits that it imposes upon us. And the body will not be fooled if we try to beat it into submission and ask more of it than it can deliver in a 24-hour day." Through bio-feedback, meditation, and prayer, Dossey helps people who are time-sick to slow down, and, as he says "step out of time". He tries to help them take "time exits" off of the bullet train that society has most of us on.
We have to do what we can, when we can, to get off the train. We have to try to tack back our time from that thief in the night. How do we do it?
Sometimes, we can schedule these "time exits" on our own: times of meditation and contemplation... walks in the woods... times at the gym... an hour a day put aside for reading... an afternoon nap... Any of these can slow us down, give our bodies time to replenish and reconnect, and ease us gently into the next stage of our journey. Time exits like these can pay real dividends in terms of our mental and physical health.
We need to be conscious and deliberate about taking these "time exits" for ourselves. If we aren't, then our bodies might schedule them for us, and just shut down-- with illness, disease, or accidents. "Illness is the Western world's only acceptable form of meditation," the psychologist Anne Wilson Shaef once said. The only time many of us Westerners seem willing to slow down is when the body commands us to stop.
Just as the God in Genesis worked six days on Creation-- "and on the seventh day he rested"-- so our bodies (and our psyches) need a rhythm of work and rest... tightening and loosening... work and rest...
Still, the days of our years seem to go by so fast; the circles and cycles of our lives seem to be spinning so quickly. The older we get, the faster the years go by. As Richard Saltus has written:
"Remember how, in childhood, a day or a week could be an eternity? But now that we're older, how quickly the weeks, months, even years can race by in a blur. Almost anyone in his 30s, 40s, or beyond will agree that time seems to have speeded up, or suffered inflation, so that it doesn't get you as much as it used to. 'The summer's just started, and now it's gone,' an adult will sigh. Or, seeing an 8-year old grandson after a long absence, grandma is apt to say, 'It seems only yesterday that you were a baby.'
"The 8-year old, by contrast, might think an hour with grandma an impossibly long stay.”
According to a psychologist named William Friedman (who wrote a book in 1991 called About Time), one of the reasons time passes so slowly for children is that "a child doesn't understand time patterns" like days and weeks and months and years. "He's stuck in the present, and it can seem interminable."
Can you imagine being "stuck" in the present moment? Interminable, yes-- but how rich-- how wondrous-- how life-sustaining and productive such an attitude toward life could be. Maybe this is a key to curing our own "time sickness" and taking back our time: to live in the moment; to cure our time hunger by ingesting each moment as a little pill of life-- of zest-- of wonder-- of youthful creativity and childlike joy.
Objectively, of course, time passes at the same rate, no matter what we're doing. A minute is a minute; an hour is an hour-- whether we're washing dishes or working with customers in a store or at the office, or watching a movie, or a football game, doing something really exciting like listening to a sermon!
But subjectively, inside ourselves, time seems to move differently depending if we're doing something "different"-- something interesting, something out of the ordinary, something exciting, something frightening even-- than if we're locked in the same routine, hour after hour, constantly watching the clock.
You’ve heard the saying: "Time flies when you're having fun," and to a great degree, it’s true.
But it's also true that those times that are marked by "more vivid and memorable events seem fuller than those times that are locked in the repetition of our routine."
Joy-filled, wondrous, creative, inspiring times don’t take up any more time, objectively, than the dreary, mundane, routine times do. But they seem, somehow, more "worthwhile" than lesser time do. We seem to get more “bang” for our “time bucks” from them.
One thing I've discovered in writing biographies of different people is that you just can't give equal space and attention to everything in a person's life—nor should you. Now, I absolutely love Rosalyn Carter. But I remember, some years ago, when I read her memoir, First Lady from Plains that I had a real problem getting through it. Not because of anything in particular Rosalyn said, but because of the way the book was structured, year by year, through her whole life, so that she gave equal time and pages to (say) the beautification of the Georgia state highway between Macon and Valdosta as she did to (say) the Camp David peace agreement. (I heard not too long ago about a scholar at the Hoover Institution in
When you write a biography, to keep it interesting, you have to choose, and edit, and pare down the ordinary times and give more space and time to the extraordinary, the historic, the heroic.
That’s what we’d each have to do if we were to write our memoirs: give more pages to the interesting, important events (and periods of our lives) than we would to the day in/day out stuff (even though we probably spend 150 of the 200 pages we've been allotted in the day in/day out routines we live).
Maybe that’s the way we have to live out this epic of ours on this Earth, as well: Maybe we have to try to get out of the routine as much as we can; do some different things; see some different sites; meet some different people; take more risks; watch more sunsets; pick more daisies. You know the litany as well as I do-- go out and do it! Life's too short not to.
Lend your voices only to sounds of freedom,
No longer lend your strength to that you wish to be free from.
Fill your lives with love and bravery and you shall lead
a life uncommon.
A life uncommon—whatever our lives look like on the outside-- is a life where our time serves us, and not we it.
A life uncommon may last 20 years or 30 or 80 or 100. I think I’ve said it three of the last four weeks, but it’s true: The worth of our lives is not best determined how long our lives happen to be chronologically. The worth of our lives is determined how well we live the span of years we have been given.
We can slow down these lives of ours, and reclaim our time.
But it won't happen by itself.
It takes conscious effort, and conscious choice:
We each are called upon to grasp what is really important about our lives, and concentrate on that.
Then the hours of our days will be blessings, and not curses.
Then we’ll have a better chance at discerning what it is we are here to do, and we’ll be better able to do our life’s work well, from the fullness of our beings.
Then we won't be spending all our time
putting out other people's fires
and tilting at other people's windmills
and fattening other people's bank accounts.
Instead, we will then be serving them
as we serve ourselves,
genuinely, from the very core of who we are.
Time weighs heavily if we always live according to schedules, timetables, and
But when we are in harmony with our times,
at peace with the days of our living,
then we skip and jump through life,
as though we were endlessly, eternally young,
and as though the weight we carry
is as light as a feather,
a feather borne along
on the very breath of God.
Life is a dance, and not a race.
So, as much as you're able, take it as slow as you can—
Hear you life’s music before the song, all too soon, is over.