Some thoughts on time

Padraig O’Tauma, the house poet from On Being, makes me think. In a good way. If you are in a thinking kinda mood, check out this newsletter… I love that he says, you can’t do the work of grief in advance, even for something you know is coming… and that certain experiences change our relationship with time. I think this gave me permission for the fact that COVID-19 has made time very tricksy for me, and that’s not a sign there’s something wrong with me or my ability to cope with pandemic life… it’s just what happens. And you have to live through that, day by day, you can’t cram for it, or do any advance training. And is this not true, too, that we think of grief, or other things, as things we need to power through. Or that we think of time as something we need to marshal, assign, delegate, manage and control. Ho ho, as if by floating down the river, we can tell the river what to do… Nope, we’re passengers. We might as well notice that, and enjoy the ride.

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Dear friends,

Just as I sat down to write this week’s newsletter, I heard that the father of a friend of mine had died. I messaged him quickly, of course, and then messaged a few others, too, so that they could know and be in touch with their support and presence and sympathy. 

I heard back from my friend. Needless to say everything’s changed for him: today, this week, this month … and when he gets back to some kind of daily routine, things will be different for him then, too. His father’s death wasn’t entirely unexpected, but you can’t do the work of grief in advance, either. 

Certain experiences — ones of sadness, or ones of joy, or ones in-between — fundamentally shift what is important for us. Our relationship with time changes: what had seemed important becomes less so, and what is necessary calls for our attention. 

In this week’s episode of On Being, Krista talks with British journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the recent book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. For many years he wrote a regular column in the Guardian, where he paid attention — with wry, self-effacing humor — to matters of meaning and happiness. (Another of his books is subtitled Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.) He brings warmth, reality, and insight into the complicated questions that unfold when we begin to talk about “time management.” 

When Krista asks Oliver, “What is time?” he shares that often time is imagined as a kind of resource container into which we must push all of our tasks, desires, resolutions, to-do lists, and hopes. This approach to time is one that imagines control, and one that’s premised on the understanding that it is time that’s unwieldy, rather than ourselves. Time, he proposes, is really a portal into the human condition: our desires, our resistances, our relationship to pain, constraint, disappointment, and pleasure. No wonder distraction is so appealing: “I think that the closer technology brings us to the cusp of feeling like we are the gods of our time, the more incredibly offensive it seems to be reminded of all the ways in which we still aren’t.” 

What’s the antidote? What would it mean to live well with time, or — as he quotes the psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz — what does “entering time and space completely” mean for us in our lives, with its endless demands? He doesn’t suggest an app, or a new technique, but rather a deep engagement with the self. There’s a reason why, as he puts it, the fantasy about getting “everything” done can often, too, be a tool for continuing to postpone the things that really matter. For instance, getting up from his writing desk and going into parenting mode, not letting the idea of “I was almost there” interrupt his time with family. After years of trying, he says, “I am a bit more at peace with those things, because I no longer believe, deep down, that I’m going to one day get to the point where you’ve reached the summit and then you can just keep walking along the plateau with no effort; that you’re going to reach the top part of life where there are no problems.” 

Oliver suggests things that are difficult to hear, such as embracing mild discomfort that comes with making firm choices about time, as well as recognizing the ironic relief of understanding our cosmic insignificance. This doesn’t plunge him into despair; rather, he highlights that it opens up more generative approaches to what matters in a life. 

Friends, in all the demands on your time, in all the pressures you’re facing this week — from yourself, from work, from others, from society — we wish you the wisdom to know what you’re able to do, and to do that with heart and presence, to step back a little from the resource-container imagination of time, and to step into it fully, completely, attending to what really matters. 


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