When we think beyond an ordinary watch or clock, Time becomes one of those mysteries that has drawn the interests of physicists, metaphysicists, and philosophers of all persuasions. Existentially, time can be both an ally and an enemy, depending on how we relate to it. Time should always be our ally, but it doesn’t always work out that way for us. I think the only reason we would view it negatively springs from the fact that we might not have used it in the most efficient manner. Time carries those lessons of life, some we wish we would have learned earlier, and others we wish we wouldn’t have had to learn at all. It stares us in the face whether or not we like it. We stand in its midst and are caught in its flow even when we would prefer that not to be the case. We would like the ability to slow it down and even halt its onslaught on occasions. Other experiences find us wanting to speed it up exponentially. Whatever the case, our not letting time be what it is – Time – is the main factor we don’t learn from it what we can.
Time as a Teacher of Wisdom
No doubt, most of us heard our parents and grandparents proclaim how fast time would pass, and suddenly we would be looking upon our pasts as the largest part of our existence. Having reached the mark of a septuagenarian, I can attest that everything my dad said about how quickly the decades, especially those following my school days, would speed by is true. It appears over the years that time exponentially speeds up. I’m certain that the twenty-four hours in a day are the same now that they were when I was twelve, but the way they fly by feels very different than when I used to wait impatiently at my school desk for the afternoon bell to signal the end of the school day.
Biblical writings teach us wisdom concerning time. Such wisdom is one of those things of life I wish I had learned earlier rather than later. Psalm 103 proclaims that human life is like a flower of the field, flourishing for a while, and then gone with the wind in the bat of an eye. The wind passes over this flower, says the author King David, and its place is remembered no longer. In Psalm 90, Moses compares the passing of years to the eternal God. A thousand years to God is like but yesterday when it passed. A millennium to God is but a watch in the night. This Psalm likewise compares the years of life to the grass or a flower in the field: like the grass that is renewed in the morning/in the morning it is renewed/in the evening it fades and withers. The Psalm goes on to say that the years of our lives are soon gone, and we fly away. Given this shortness of life, the Psalmist asks God: teach us to number our days/that we may get a heart of wisdom. Hence, time and its relation to our lives is viewed as something from which we can garner valuable lessons that can lead us to accrue wisdom if we so choose to relate to it in a way that allows it to teach us. What are some of the lessons that time can teach us if we are open to letting it be our teacher?
Time is Relentless
I’m sure that most of us have seen family pictures comprising family members with their young kids at preschool age and have read captions like, don’t blink, where did the years go, or turn, turn, turn, now they’re grown. Quite frankly, the decades of life do seem to pass in light-speed, especially when you look back on them. I can remember high school graduation night like it was yesterday, as the adage goes. The notion that in 2020, someone born in 1990 will be thirty years old is almost beyond comprehension. More emphatically, I remember how lively and fun my parents were when they were in their thirties and forties. Both of them died in their seventies although those fun-filled times seem recent, but they passed like the bat of an eye. Don’t blink is indeed a good lesson to learn about time. Savor the moments, don’t waste them, and don’t wish them away just so you’ll get to Friday faster. Wishing away time is like wishing away pearls of wisdom that you’re letting slip through your fingers. There’s no way to hold onto anything forever; all will pass. But you can find ways to savor the good tastes of life. Time will not prevent you from going old. Just the opposite, it will take you where you may not be ready to go. Time doesn’t care whether or not you’re willing to be in its flow. We can fight it, or we can learn to be at peace with it. Some of the saddest people I know are those in their sixty’s or older, looking back and believing that they have wasted their lives. That hard and harsh reality brings up all sorts of lessons upon which we can reflect regarding our relationship to time.
The Now Is Always of the Essence
I’m sure most of us think about certain plans that we had on which we never acted. Such a fact doesn’t have to be catastrophic, unless inaction represents a pattern throughout our lives. Another major lesson to learn about our relationship to time is to avoid getting caught up in the past or lost in the future to the point that such entanglements rob us of our present. For sure, there’s nothing wrong in reflecting on the past for the sake of good memories or learning lessons. And there’s nothing wrong with planning for the future with some vision of what we hope it may look like and bring. But if learning from the past and planning for the future doesn’t impact what we do in the present, then we’re wasting the valuable commodity of time. There’s a skill in embracing the existential now. The skill entails our ability to think and act in the moment so as to carve out our lives with which we’ll move forward. Such in-the-moment living doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, miscues, and outright screw-ups. It simply means we take in and live with the hits and misses that make up our day-to-day living. The ability to navigate the now so as to build a life is one of the most important keys to obtaining wisdom. The lessons we learn by embracing the now are the ones that can protect us from wasting the commodity of time. There will always be those thoughts about events where we wish we would have done things differently. But those events don’t have to represent our lives at large. Even when we reach our septuagenarian years and older, the now is still with us. Thomas A’ Kemp, author of the classic work, Imitation of Christ, in one of his many aphorisms in that work stated that if there was something you wanted to do at a younger age and didn’t get it done, then do it now. If we have to come to grips at an older age that there were things we let pass by, it still is not too late to at least try them from a different perspective and age. We can’t be thirty and do them, but we can be seventy and do them in a manner that is fulfilling – or at least we can try. There is also the lesson that we can embrace whereby we settle in and understand that many of our choices have been made, and we must live with what those choices brought us. The fact that I chose a counseling career over an engineering field is done. The fact that I chose to stay in school for years to pursue a Ph.D. is done, and those years are gone, and they’ve brought what they brought. Although I can’t alter them, I can still make some alterations and decide on how to carve some new paths at this stage of life. They will not be and can’t be the paths that a thirty-year-old would have made with all the vigor and energy of a thirty-year-old. But they can nonetheless be new opportunities and exciting in their own right. Those are choices and possible paths that I face in my given now that make up my present.
Choices and Consequences
One of the things that we don’t like about time is that in its wake we have cast choices that have rendered consequences, both to our like and dislike. For the latter, we simply may have to embrace the fact that choices we didn’t like have been cast, and we can’t go back and undo them. Some choices hurt us and other people, and the simple fact may be that we are left to live with that reality. Some choices throw us so far off track, that we spend much of our commodity of time trying to get back on the right road. We have to live with the fact that some things we do take us places we would have preferred not to go. They make us face things about ourselves that we would prefer not to face. None of this means that people can’t change and overcome some bad choices. It does mean, however, that there are some things in our lives that we cast in the wake of time, and we simply have to let them lie there. Regret is a heavy-duty concept. But there are some actions we might have taken in life that we regret, even though we learned the lesson from them that we needed to learn. Ideas, beliefs, and choices based on those ideas and beliefs have consequences. Sometimes we choose to go against our beliefs and ideas, and those choices too have consequences. I’m sure that we have all known people, and that we have seen it in ourselves as well, where once choices are cast, we want to go back and undo those choices as though they never happened. We want everything to go back and be the way it was before we made the choice. Another valuable lesson about time is that it can’t be rewound. There are no do-overs. Overcome things, we can do by the power of the Spirit. Make things as though they never happened, that we can’t do. Consequences follow choices. Although they can be painful, consequences can also be valuable learning lessons. Whether or not they become valuable learning lessons is still another choice we have to make.
Several times throughout this article, I have designated time as a commodity. Although our time is much more than a simple commodity, it at least is a commodity that we use wisely or unwisely. One of the major lessons to learn about time is delayed gratification. It is a lesson lost on many people today. Perhaps it always has been. Perhaps even it is one of the most difficult lessons to learn about time and human action. We all hope to carve out a certain kind of life for ourselves. Putting in the time to develop ourselves – knowledge, skills, experience, deeper understanding of things – is one of the most important investments we’ll make toward this commodity we all have called time. It is human nature to want what we want as quick as we can get it, expending the least amount of effort to get it. If we become aware of that fact, we can do something about it so that it doesn’t derail us all the time. The 10k rule applies here hard and fast. Putting time and concerted effort into self-development is one of the most important investments we can make. And such development is not simply about working skills. People skills, interpersonal relational skills, and the skills to learn from others are all part of the development. And then there’s the skill to learn from our failures. All such deepening requires time – reflection, study, effort, contemplation, and action. The results are what countless spiritual writers call wisdom. The great Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, in one of his works stated what I have come to believe is a simple truth: There are no shortcuts to wisdom.
Patience is a virtue . . . A stitch in time . . . Home runs are only for baseball . . . These are statements, adages, that I’m sure we’ve all heard or read. There are reasons that some ideas become adages. They are cast in the real stuff of life. Biblically, patience is not only a virtue, it is considered a fruit of the Spirit. A stitch in time is simply about facing the problems and struggles of the day so that one doesn’t have to face them over and over again down the road as though they are always something new. What we learn to solve today will mean we don’t have to spend valuable time on the same problem down the road. We learn lessons that contribute to skills that aid us on our journey in living. And yes, home runs are fun in a baseball game. Babe Ruth swung for the fence and held the home run record for decades. He also held the American League for strike outs five different times, totaling over 1300 strike outs. Too often, rather than taking the patient path of skill building, learning, and developing our selves, we want the payoff right now. Swing for the fence. There may be a time in life’s decisions to swing for the fence, but most often, it’s that slow slug paced effort toward building life skills that pays off in the long run. Yes, time is more than a commodity. But it is at least a commodity to which we relate all of our lives. What we do with it counts. How to rightly relate to and sow our seeds in time are some of the most valuable life lessons we’ll ever grow and build.
Time is always an ally if we choose to see it as such, and now is always with us so that we can begin to rightly relate to this ominous thing called Time.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/June 14th, 2019