It was while reading a bedtime story one night that journalist and TED Talk presenter Carl Honoré realized that he had lost his grip on time. He was skipping pages of the story in order to get back to work more quickly, and his son, who knew every word by heart, was having none of it. What should have been the best moment of his day had devolved into a nightly battle for no reason other than the fact that he felt short on time.
I can’t recall if I ever had this kind of make-or-break moment, but I can name dozens of smaller incidents, each a symptom of an unhealthy attitude toward time: avoiding colleagues in the hallway because I couldn’t afford to get into a conversation, compulsively calculating the fastest route whenever I walked across campus, not being able to remember the last time I ate dinner without simultaneously doing work. The cumulative effect of these many troubling moments was the stark realization that I was losing some kind of battle with time and that something had to change before I blew an artery or lost my mind.
I strongly suspect that Honoré and I are not the only ones who struggle with time. For most of us, there never seems to be enough of it. Now that summer has officially arrived and many are taking time off for vacation, it seems an appropriate moment to reevaluate our relationship with time.
In retrospect, I see that my real problem was not so much that I was losing a battle with time. Rather the problem was that I was (and sometimes still am) mentally boxed in by a certain way of thinking about time. Martin Heidegger famously wrote, “Language is the house of being.” There are few better examples of what he meant than our accustomed language about time. Phrases like “time is money,” “time is running out,” and “working against the clock” roll fluidly off our tongues. At the root of these phrases is the same metaphor – time as a finite resource. Thinking and speaking of time in these terms has a tangible impact on our day-to-day living. Because we think of time as a limited commodity, we obsessively track it, hoard it, and deny it to others. We avoid people in the hallways and skip pages when reading bedtime stories to our children.
Everyone I have ever met feels discontent with this state of affairs, and now, thanks to researchers like Matt Killingsworth, we have scientific evidence verifying our intuitions of just how detrimental this race-against-the-clock mentality is to our happiness. Having analyzed 650,000 real-time reports on the daily lives of 15,000 people, Killingsworth observed that “mind wandering” (thinking about something other than what one is presently doing) makes people less happy than if they were present to the moment, regardless of what they happen to be doing. This is precisely what hyperactive time consciousness does to us. Because we are always calculating how long this meeting will take or how much time that detour will cost us, we are seldom able to enjoy the present moment.
So it would seem that, when it comes to time, the linguistic house we built for ourselves has become a prison. The good news is that we are the ones who built this house. We can tear it down and build anew.
As it turns out, modern physics has already initiated the razing. In her most recent interview with Carlo Rovelli, On Being host Krista Tippett quoted Albert Einstein, who wrote shortly before his death that “the distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Dr. Rovelli affirmed Einstein’s insight, noting that from the perspective of quantum physics there is no such thing as time.
Time does not exist.
While I could not begin to explain the science behind Rovelli’s statement, it makes sense to me as someone who views reality through a Christian lens. From my youth I have been taught that, before time began, there was Something; that our past, present, and future all exist within an eternal present; and that, when my time on Earth runs out, that is not the end but rather an opening into an eternal and infinitely more real existence. Therefore, I have lived my life according to the premise that my temporal actions echo in eternity. What I do with the ephemeral moments I have in this life determines how I will spend the eternity to which I grow closer with every passing second.
To claim that time is an illusion is not a purely scientific or theological assertion. Many of us have had a first-hand experience of the relativity–even the non-existence–of time. For me that experience came with the birth of my daughter. As far as my wife and I were concerned, when our little girl entered the world, the Earth stopped on its axis for a few hours. Another person might recall the out-of-body, out-of-time experience of when their car flipped over in a collision.
Extraordinary moments like these pull back the veil of time and offer us a glimpse of an alternative to living life on a running clock. Even though for many of us it takes a life-changing event to shake us free of the illusion of time, the fortunate truth is that this is by no means the only way it can happen. If we live as if were are not bound by time, we soon feel it to be so. This insight has emerged in both film and philosophy. In the delightful movie About Time, the protagonist, after several years of experimenting with his inherited ability to travel back in time, ultimately concludes that he doesn’t need to change the past in order to be happy. He simply resolves to live each day as if he has deliberately come back to live this one day. Decades earlier, Viktor Frankl, the famous psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, summed up the key to human existence in this imperative: “live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
This is good enough advice, but it only partially succeeds in rebuilding the house. We need language at least as concrete as the old “time is money” if we are to successfully manage our temporality while making our way into the eternal. We are temporal creatures, after all, even if we are also eternal souls. As embodied spirits, we absorb wisdom most readily when it is embedded, not just in words, but in habits. I can testify personally how, little by little, a daily ritual has extracted me from the current of time that once seemed inescapable. Each morning when I walk into my office, I pick up a small seed and hold it in the palm of my hand before placing it in a bowl by itself. The seed represents for me the hours ahead and the work that will fill them. At the end of the day I take the seed out again and hold it momentarily before returning it to another bowl with other seeds from days past. When I let that seed fall from my hand each evening, I pause the inexorable rush of time and relinquish my ambitions, expectations, and concerns to the Sower, who will make of these tokens of finitude something infinitely more wonderful than I could have imagined. Simple as it is, this ritual–reinforced by habits of prayer and meditation–has brought a surprising peace to my days.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that I have deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, and a finite number of years to live. I must play by the rules of temporality as do all citizens of modern society… at least for now. Still, the way I think and feel about my (temporary) temporality has been transformed and along with it my quality of life. No longer do I hoard the minutes of my day. Now I plant the seeds of eternity.