Thoughts on Time

21 08 2013

“Every morning you are handed 24 golden hours,” as the motivational quote goes. What you do with them is your choice. You can spend them constructively, at work or with family or on exercise. Or you can waste them. I can spend one on video games. I can spend one on Reddit, or, perhaps more accurately, five on Reddit at a time.

The quote has its usefulness, chiefly as a motivator to spend time wisely. But within it is a major structural flaw, evidence of a major falsehood that shapes the way we see the world and interact with it.

The flaw is that our time is our own.

What the quote gets right is that our hours are given to us; what it gets wrong is suggesting that we are given full autonomy over all 24 of them. We are given our moments one at a time, and to expect some level of control or ownership over a future moment that hasn’t been given yet – well, that might be our biggest collective absurdity.

Neil Postman writes in Amusing Ourselves to Death about how the invention of the clock fundamentally changed our perception of the world we live in, “disassociating time from human events” and creating an independent world that supersedes and controls ours. This is no more clearly evident than when a man looks at his watch and announces “The sun will set at 7:30,” as if the celestial bodies follow the orders of the ticking authority figure wrapped around his wrist and not the other way around.

The clock broke up the entirety of time into measurable quantities – hours, minutes, seconds – and it wasn’t long until we started to feel we could rightfully own these ‘products’.

C.S. Lewis remarks on the inherent ridiculousness of this entitlement mentality in The Screwtape Letters. “The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time,” Screwtape tells his nephew, “it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels.”

The point is simple: what ownership can we assert over time when did not create it and we cannot control it? The answer is also simple: none.

Our sense of irrational ownership doesn’t end with time, of course. Screwtape himself goes on to mock the widespread human belief that we own our own bodies, but I think that is a subject for a different post – there’s not time enough to adequately address ‘time’ as it is.

Our belief that we own our time is not only irrational, it’s one of the chief sources of irritation in our daily lives. Who hasn’t at one point been annoyed at our plans for the day being overridden by an unforseen event – a friend in need, an unexpected visitor, an inescapable commitment? I see this too much in myself. If my time is not my own, why should I be so upset by being pulled away from my own plans into something different? In fact, couldn’t the moments I’m given come with an intended purpose, much like the gift of a tennis racket comes with the intention of playing tennis, or the gift of a book with the intention of reading? Maybe I’m given this particular moment of my life with the intention that I’ll use it for comforting a friend or serving someone in need. If I stubbornly try to hang on to my plan to use this coming hour for relaxation, I miss the beauty of the gift when it’s given.

Ultimately, though, we hold on to our belief in ownership of time because it supports the one great lie that we all desperately want to be true: that we are at the center of all things.

We want to believe that we are the biggest thing in the universe, that we control nature, thought and society. We desperately want to believe that we are the ultimate authority – that we define all things ourselves and that we and only we judge their validity and truth based on our own criteria. We attempt to reduce time to graven images of clock faces we put up on our walls so that we can confuse our ability change the clock face with our authority over time.

But I’ve found there’s little that makes me feel smaller as a human being than stripping away the façade of a clock face and standing next to the real thing, the issue of time, and realizing how little authority I have over it. And that’s a good thing. I believe that feeling fully the smallness of mankind is one of the most authentic entry points to one of life’s hardest truths: that there is Authority greater than us.


Christmas: Hoping in the plan even when we don’t understand it

20 12 2012

The beginning of Luke’s gospel makes me think of the Fellowship of the Ring. When I was in junior high, the Lord of the Rings movies were like this sweeping cultural event. The first movie came out in 2001, and I swear we watched that same film over and over again at every birthday party and sleepover for the next three years. It never got old. We were all waiting with breathless anticipation for the next installment to come out, spending our time trying to read the books (and mostly ending up skimming all the bits between the battle scenes) and daydreaming about becoming a master archer.

I actually think the first movie was the best part of that entire trilogy, just because there was so much anticipation. It was epic – there were heroes and villains being introduced, conflicts and giant battles being set up while stopping just short of breaking out, and although Tolkien’s world seemed dangerous and chaotic, we all knew and looked forward to the inevitable moment when Frodo would succeed and all would be set right again.

That’s what I’ve been feeling about the Christmas story. There’s this breathless anticipation from the peripheral characters – wise men following trails in the stars, angels appearing to shepherds, wrinkly old people making these gigantic prophesies. Even Mary and Joseph can feel it – this moment is the start of something entirely new. This tiny baby is the one who will change everything, get rid of the bad guys (most people expected him to overthrow the oppressive Romans), set everything right at long last.

I also can’t read the Christmas story without at the same time seeing the Easter story in my head. To make a long story short, Jesus doesn’t really do what all these people expected him to do. He doesn’t get rid of the Romans, in fact, they kill him. But it turns out that even though Jesus’ way wasn’t what people wanted or expected him to do, it was actually something better. Instead of giving us a regular old, run-of-the-mill, earthly, Romans-free kingdom, he gave us entrance to a heavenly kingdom. One that isn’t just good, it’s perfect. And, oh yeah, it lasts forever.

It gets me thinking about how we’re really in the same boat as people were back then. We’re living in a messed-up world where bad stuff happens more often than good, and it just doesn’t feel right. A guy killed 20 kids at an elementary school last week. Kids. When I heard about it, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. There simply is no answer to the question “why?” and that’s the hardest part to swallow. How does something like this happen? What kind of a world does that happen in? What kind of a world are we trapped in where evil has this strong a foothold?

I’m guessing you felt about the same. There’s something in us that cries out when these things happen, as if somewhere deep inside, we know we don’t want to live in that kind of world, that we’re not meant to set up our kingdom here. Inside, we’re groaning for everything to be fixed. We’re like all those people waiting for Jesus to be born, barely holding in our hope for the moment when everything comes together and we don’t have to deal with these answerless questions.

It can be exhausting to keep hoping for the coming of good when evil seems so strong all around us. We might expect God to step in and stop these tragedies from happening. We might start to doubt that He’s there, or that He’s good, or that He loves us. But we should remember what all those people from the Gospel of Luke found out: sometimes our ideas of what “the plan” should be are just too small. If God had followed their plan back then, He would have kicked out the Romans and they would have ended up with an earthly kingdom that almost certainly would have fallen apart by now. By letting God use His plan instead of man’s, those New Testament folks ended up with something way better… and what they gained, we gain too. It didn’t fade away over time – it’s ours, it’s theirs, and it also belongs to everyone who will come after us.

That’s what I’m trying to learn this Christmas: hope in something big, bigger than myself, my mind, or my best ideas of how things could resolve. It’s something I think we can all draw from the holiday – both in our personal lives and, in a broad way, for the world as a whole.

I’m at one of those weird places in life where I honestly don’t know where I’ll be one year from now. Swimming has been a huge passion in my life for as long as I can remember, and I don’t really know where swimming will be in my life after I graduate, and that terrifies me. I’ve got some ideas in my head of how things could work out perfectly (they mostly involve Speedo calling me up out of the blue to irrationally offer me a truckload of cash to swim in their suits for the next four years), but I’ve got to keep remembering two things about God’s plan: (1) It’s a perfect plan and (2) it probably looks nothing like the plan I’ve got in mind.

And it’s the same way for us all as a people. We might ask why God lets schoolchildren die in shootings, why He didn’t step in and zap the shooter with a bolt of lightning. We might wonder why He lets bad things happen in our lives, or why He allows good people to suffer injustice. But as difficult as it sounds, we have to be able to let go of our notion of “the plan,” and realize that it’s just painfully small, woefully incomplete. Our plan might fix the things we can see, but God’s plan touches things we haven’t even conceptualized yet, and succeeds in ways we might never understand this side of heaven.

That’s not to say it’s easy to trust. One of my biggest struggles right now is in fighting God’s plan, wanting to bail on Him for my own roadmap because, while my plan is flawed, at least I can see it in its entirety. But I’m trying to overcome that human tendency to crave control, and I’m trying not to mind the things I don’t know and can’t understand.

If you get anything from this rambling block of text (and here I’m talking to all 3 people, my mom included, who will probably read this), I hope you’ll remember to hope. This world is horribly, horribly broken and incomplete. But a better one is coming! Hope in it, wait for it, and trust that God will bring it about in His own timing.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.