Measuring Time

There’s this silly, sentimental country song by Tracy Lawrence with the famous chorus,

You find out who your friends are 

somebody’s gonna drop everything, 

Run out and crank up their car,

Hit the gas, get there fast,

Never stop to think “what’s in it for me?” or “it’s way too far”

They just show on up, with their big old heart,

You find out who your friends are. 

In general, I don’t recommend living your life by the lyrics of country ballads, but I have established a kind of personal contract with this song: if a friend needs me, even at a most inconvenient time, I will skip a class, or put my dinner in the fridge, or set aside my work, and go to them. Ironically, the feeling culture of America does not seem to value such an attitude. The main objections are typically: “but would that friend do the same thing for you?” or “that’s unfair of them to ask of you when you have other responsibilities,” or “you have to be able to say ‘no.’”  These points are level-headed and perhaps the most practical attitude, but I am not convinced that time itself is worth being held in such high regard. As Hillsdale students, we tend to believe that scheduling our lives is the best way to avoid rashly wasting time or even overworking. This Aristotelian “golden mean” perspective has merit, but who is to say that we have settled on the proper balance? This average isn’t truly quantifiable. Indeed, we should not conserve time for “getting things done”: we should use time as a tool for living the way we ought, which often requires that we waste it.

It may sound comical, but the famous Anglo-Saxon poem “The Wanderer” has a similar attitude toward time as this modern country music. Line 5b, which has gained significant commentary among academics, reads “Wyrd bið ful aræd!” which has been translated “fate is inflexible” or, sometimes, “events always go as they must.” The term “fate” is a poor connotation for wyrd. In fact, this Anglo-Saxon perspective on life is sometimes left in the text as a lone, untranslated word. In the context of the poem, the Wanderer’s experiences reveal that wyrd is the reality that appears directly in front of your face as it happens. The present is imminent; it is set, but future moments do not stare you in the face, and therefore should not be valued above the current moment. Thus, if our experience of reality will not unfold in any way foreknown by us, we ought to simply respond to the realities of life in each moment as best we can. Indeed, as humans we are restrained by the fact that we only exist in this current moment, yet we try so hard to dominate our own experience of reality. We are future obsessed when we should instead be present oriented.

Being present-focused does not mean that we should believe Robin Williams—or Horace, take your pick—when he whispered in his students’ ears “carpe diem…seize the day!” Indeed, the carpe diem mantra has become a popular lifestyle among young Americans who claim to be “minimalists” that delight in traveling, intimate coffee shops, and “nomadic life,” rather than in accumulating material comforts like homes, clothes, and other status symbols as older generations tended to do. Despite the appeals of the modern manifestation of carpe diem, this attitude is flawed in that it is not an acceptance of life as time presents it to you, but it is a conscious attempt to dominate life through the vehicle of time. One may argue that because time is limited he must use it as a means for enjoying life, for doing things, for accomplishing “bucket-list” goals in order to find fulfillment. What this argument fails to realize is that it does not lead one to value the present moment so much as it values the things that can be experienced through the present moment. He hopes to use time to dominate life experiences. This is practically a neo-decadent theory, and if its adherents suddenly became immortal we would have thousands of Dorian Gray impersonators attempting to cram infinite experiences into an infinite present. Thus, it is clear that to seize the day is to disrespect the day, for the present moment is more than a means to an end that will eventually measure out the grandeur of life.

Conversely, being present-focused does not mean one is docile towards time, allowing it to dictate his actions. This is the fault that I feel we students at Hillsdale may fall into, as we often adhere to time’s expectations for rational uses of the moment rather than responding in the best possible way. For example, it seems the rational, time-centric perspective would hold that the best way to spend every moment between 11:00PM and 7:00AM is sleeping. Say you entered into such a contract with time that you would sleep for that period without fail, and every night you turned your phone on silent. In this action you have relegated yourself to be controlled by what “well-used” time would expect of you in every single impending moment for eight hours. In my own life, I once experienced a truly awful state of despair, and I was up all night trying to find peace, calling my sister and some friends in the hope of hearing their voices. The next day, I demanded to know why my sister wouldn’t answer my calls, and she said she specifically turns it off so that she isn’t woken up by ridiculous people calling her at such ungodly hours. Being the pathetic creature I am, I began to cry, and said “but what if I need you right then?” Indeed, one could say that choosing to leave the ringer on at night is future-oriented and anticipatory, but it is actually present-focused in that you are consciously rejecting time’s controlling expectation of “you should be sleeping,” in favor of a conscious decision to be willing at any dream-filled moment to take a phone call if needed. Rather than thinking, “what should I be doing at 2:37 AM?” and letting our notions of time decide, we ought to be ready in each present moment to meet the needs of that moment, whether that need is to race a family member to the hospital, or to talk to a depressed friend, or to continue sleeping restfully. 

To restate this point: spending time being “productive” or using time to fulfill pre-determined expectations are not necessarily the best ways to spend time. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I was a student driven by expectations of what I should be doing, and if a friend needed me to skip class to sit with them because they were in distress, I seriously doubt I would have done it. And I thank God every day that I have had friends in my life that have done just that. I have known friends that stopped caring for their own time, stopped paying attention to time at all, and cared for me. To be docile towards time is to accept its inevitability and simply yield to it, but to be present-focused is to stare time in the face as it confronts you and say: “Get away from me. This: this person, this feeling, this help I can give, even if it takes all night, is more important than whatever you will take away from me.” 

Sometimes I watch that clock tower in the middle of campus, threatening to strike the hour, and I am called back in time to a dormitory at Harvard on June 2, 1910, where Faulkner’s young character, Quentin Compson, is smashing his watch. The words of his father, “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it,” ring true. What a grand moment of misunderstanding: in hoping to forget time, Quentin was actually trying to coerce it into not mattering. He hoped to convince himself that time was just a construct. But even if we ignore time we will inevitably grow old, and we will each become another tally mark in time’s 108 billion death toll of mankind. All this to say, we don’t “tell-off” time because we want to ignore it, because we don’t care about it; we rebuke the supposed urgencies of time because the people and situations of the present moment are the essence of the moment itself, and as such they are the most crucial elements we may confront. We forget about time so that we might give each moment the attention that it deserves. 

At Hillsdale we are planners, and we need to be in order to achieve success or higher knowledge or future opportunity, but at what point does a future salary or an “A” rather than a “B” or the satisfaction of being “caught up” on work descend into mere submission to time’s constant manipulations? Once, a very kind professor sat with me, and she asked, “what do you desire in relationships?” And I rambled about all that my friends had given me, and she realized something I didn’t: I attach myself to those who give graciously with their time. That professor sent me a very thoughtful excerpt from a book by Joan Chittister, which reads in part,

Every country on earth has some kind of cliché or stereotype attached that portends to describe the personality characteristics of its people. Germans are hardworking, the conventional wisdom concludes; the French are romantic; the Irish are fun loving; the Swiss are efficient. The labels go all the way around the globe. And there’s a bit of truth to all of them and a lot of error, as well…The labels say something about the qualities a people value, about the nature of their culture, about their priorities…The American mantra is time. We are, in fact, obsessed with time. We’re a pragmatic, productive people, and time is the national God. It shows in our language. No other people on earth speak of time as we do. We spend time and invest time and need time and lose time and save time and waste time and find time and buy time and gain time and want time. And, in the end, time, not life, threatens to absorb us. 

Indeed, we cannot allow anxieties about the future or restlessness about the past control the present moment, and so we must step back and reconsider the ways that we measure our lives. Rather than checking accomplishments off to-do lists, let us consider the needs of each person we meet. Rather than securing more comforts, let us seek to comfort our friends in distress. Rather than ask someone “how are you doing?” let us call out, “where are you? Come here right now, I want you.” Rather than battling against the expectations time levies upon us, let us respond with sincere care to the joys and sorrows of each moment.

Ryan Pfeiffer is a senior studying English.

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