Tuesday, January 06, 2015
Remember when we wrote our first check of the New Year by scribbling out the previous year we inserted by mistake? That was concrete evidence that we had passed over to a new block of time. But we don’t really write checks any more. Debit cards and e-bills make checks obsolete. In fact when someone ahead of me at the cashier brings out the check book, I feel like an archeologist discovering the Rosetta Stone. I’m compelled to point out the anomaly to my grandchildren. Calendars have also become a thing of the past since now we keep reminders on our cell phones – no days or years, just dings that tell us we have a dentist appointment tomorrow and we should pick up the dry cleaning on the way home. We don’t even have to remember birthdays or anniversaries because once we input them to our phones they automatically reappear when needed. Time passes without any context for exactly what time it is.
Time affects so much of what we do. Bills are due on a certain date. Our children must meet birthdate requirements to enter school or to be on a sports team. We can’t get a driving license or register to vote before the legal age. Coupons and food have expiration dates. Stores have operating hours. Stock markets, banks, post offices, and government agencies aren’t open for business on specific holidays. Airlines don’t wait for late passengers. Life is filled with schedules whether for entertainment, travel, school, work, vacation, or transportation. We have little control over these external demands, although digital video recorders do let us watch TV whenever – a small, but significant tool. Otherwise we either march to the drum of imposed time signatures or miss out.
Therefore, it’s not surprising that we don’t see time in a positive light. The exception would be New Year’s when we take a moment to create an optimistic outline of what we want to accomplish the next year. Unfortunately, for most of us, that enthusiasm disintegrates in the face of reality. We buoyantly declare that this year will be the time to lose weight, stop smoking, develop closer family ties, be more productive at work, get our closets organized, go to the gym, and/or meditate. Then the crush of time steals our resolve abbreviating our plans. Instead of proper weight management, we end up at fast food restaurants because family scheduling conflicts require easy meals, we have to leave work undone to get to the school play, we can’t seem to find a block of time to focus on those closets, and who can meditate regularly when we aren’t home except to sleep. We curse our inability to corral time and bounce along on the moving sidewalk of demands.
Time is life’s odometer. It constantly rolls onward bulldozing us while we scramble to get things done. We can’t pause or stop the movement. We may declare that 50 is the new 30, but there’s no mistaking that when we turn 50, we’ve ticked off 50 years no matter how we feel. We aren’t Benjamin Button. We make lists, check off items, and feel as if we are somehow controlling the movement. But actually we are still captive to the current. Our time has boundaries even though time itself has none. So we have to decide how we will use that time. When it comes to children, we find ourselves donating much of our time to enriching their time, which may include their participation in sports. The amount of time devoted to practices, games, tournaments, equipment shopping, and watching the professional games of the sport with our kids can be extensive and may explain why parents get so invested in their children’s participation. After all, we want our limited time to pay off in some way. If parents aren’t achieving during that period, we certainly want our kids to be successful. Rather than considering the time as something shared with our kids, we look upon it as an outlay requiring a tangible return. I used to drive Robbie three hours to practice during rush hour and two hours home. One day we drove down to practice only to discover when we got there that it had been canceled and no one bothered to call us. I burst into tears. When Robbie asked why I was crying, I blubbered out, “This is a piece of my life gone.” He was 15 and I’m sure thought his mother was crazy. Someday he may remember that moment and go “ah ha.” I only valued the drive when it yielded something, while I should have valued it for the time we got to spend together talking and connecting.
We may capture time for a moment or two. We take photos which are each 1/64 of a second in our lives. Or we take videos laying captive to longer segments of the past. We can manipulate those products, but we can’t regain the time. Then there are memories. We create a curious amalgam of truth and revision when we delve into our past. We either purposefully or accidently reshape our memories revealing a history to represents us. It’s not lying, because we don’t do it to deceive. We do it to elucidate our personality – to present a picture that can adequately explain how we came to be who we are now. Nevertheless the bygone time is simply that – gone. Its remnants remain, but those are only the shells in which the time lived. Whether we produce picture proof of an event or relate it in a story, we are doing so in a new frame of time that also speeds by. No matter how much time we remember and how much time we take to relive it, that constant drumbeat continues.
Just before Christmas I attended a lecture by Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who has stepped into the popular science shoes of Carl Sagan. His enthusiasm for his discipline and his ability to make it understandable to the general public has made him an important voice for science. He talks often about time because that’s the package in which we all live. Stars died millennia ago, but their death is just discovered due to the huge expanse of the universe. The changes in our world took billions of years – a number we can’t really comprehend. If the life of the world to date would be equated to a day, the time of mammals would be the last 1.5 minutes of that day with most human history in just the last few seconds. He told about a probe that was launched Jan. 19, 2006 to send back information about Pluto and its moons. It will make its closest pass to Pluto on July 14, 2015 and will return just a few minutes of data during that pass. It has been sending information and photos during the entire journey, but the goal is close ups of Pluto that the Hubble telescope couldn’t even capture. So after 9.5 years we will get a few minutes of close-ups before the probe speeds out further into space. This journey certainly puts into perspective that two-hour wait in line for Splash Mountain’s five-minute ride. Think about what your kids were doing in 2006 and what they are doing now to realize how much time it took to reach the outer limits of our solar system. We won’t know how much the time was worth until we get the data back.
That’s the crux of dealing with time – what is it worth? The old chestnut “Time is Money” seems misleading. No one is paid just for his or her time. We are paid for our talents or contributions. These take time to deliver, but everything takes time. The ticking of the clock is merely the universal backdrop to life. Time is not a commodity we can purchase. We can’t bank time to withdraw later to extend a pleasant vacation without missing work or to add some much wished for moments when life is approaching its close. Each of us has a different amount of time to work with, but the pace of that time is equal for everyone. So the worth of any period has to be measured not just quantifiably, but also subjectively. Certainly the time spent negotiating a peace treaty is worth plenty, but so is the time we spend supporting our children at their soccer games. Even time that on the face of it seems wasted can be worth something. Recharging our psychological batteries watching reruns of “Three’s Company” has a value not readily apparent to others, but definitely obvious to some.
For time to have significance it needn’t be attached to some lofty accomplishment. We each attribute our own value to our own time. It’s a new year, but really that’s just an arbitrary tick mark on the range of our lives. Someone long ago created the structure of time measurement and gave it names. But time is fluid. We can look at any moment as an opportunity to make a change, try a new adventure, transform walls into doors, and alter our pathway. I think resolutions serve a purpose because, if nothing else, they encourage us to take stock of our time and what we plan to do with it. But truthfully that’s something we should be doing reflexively every day, maybe even every hour. How will we use this time to make our lives and the lives of others better than they were moments ago? It doesn’t require some idealized super goal like losing weight or building a dream house. It can be simple like deciding to give more hugs, biting our tongues when we want to offer advice after a match, playing a board game, taking a walk with the entire family, picking up trash in your neighborhood, shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk, reading a book for an hour a day, watching the sunset, or building a fire for the evening. What we do with the time we have may have grandiose moments, even moments that we will be celebrated for, but for most of us our time will be valuable because it will have a value for our friends and our family, as well as for ourselves. Since technically every second starts a new year, we needn’t have some arbitrary benchmark for change during our journey on the all too fleeting continuum. We just need new eyes to see possibilities.