Rushing around is not a good way to live. We know this, yet we keep cramming in tasks and commitments as if we have no choice. It seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day for everything we have to do. The irony is cruel – that such relentless pushing to get things done usually doesn’t add up to a day well spent.
Time pressure can be felt in the heart and the belly, yet it’s all in the head. We are making it up. On purpose, we divide our attention by trying to accomplish several things at once, thinking that we are saving time. Doing four things in the same fifteen minutes feels smart, efficient. This illusion propels us, but what actually happens to the bounty of time saved? Where is the benefit to our well-being?
When we stop, breathe, pay attention, and slow down, suddenly we feel alive. These are the best moments, available for the taking whenever we decide to halt our haste. Virginia Woolf called these moments of being, in contrast to the haze of non-being in which we normally live:
A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner;…washing; cooking dinner;…When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.
I read this passage in my early twenties, and ever since I have been giving myself moments of being several times every morning. Regrettably, I find that the momentum of things to do tends to occlude my afternoons and evenings. I get caught up in hurrying, as though I have waded too deeply into the prevailing current. I am swept away, and aliveness is lost.
At red lights, I often find myself bearing down on the steering wheel with clenched hands, staring steadily at the tail lights of the car ahead of me. This posture of thwarted purpose is pointless. When I remember, I nudge myself out of this trance with the alternative urged by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk – to use the red light as an opportunity to feel what it is to have eyes. I sit back and watch the people at the corner bus stop, a wild cloud formation, or the antics of the crow atop the telephone pole. The light stops me for 28 seconds of unclenching and I get to my destination at the exactly same time.
In a hurry, I wonder if we really get that many more things done. I often sweep the floor instead of taking out my noisy, more efficient vacuum cleaner. I like seeing the pile of dirt, pine needles, and pieces of last night’s dinner gradually accumulate. Such intimacy with one’s dirt, reaching for the tough corners and undersides, doesn’t take that much more time than poking the suctioning nozzle around and doing a haphazard job of it. I find that the motion of sweeping takes the rushing out of my stomach and gives me the ease of some deep breaths.
An old-fashioned clock has been ticking as I write this. I go in and out of hearing this backdrop to the clicking of my keyboard, the steady rhythm of seconds going by. A minute is sixty of these tick-tocks, and sixty of these amounts to an hour. Time is an objective measure of duration, and yet the way time feels as it passes is entirely subjective. A day in the life of an engaged person breezes by, while the day of someone steeped in tedium or emptiness will go hour by hour until the much-desired little death of sleep. An eighty-five year old man might bemoan that it seems like he is having breakfast every fifteen minutes, while an eight year old child sees an eternity elapsing until his next birthday.
We each have an ever-changing experience of time. It weighs on us when we have to wait for something or someone, or it passes too quickly in the exquisite moments when we most want it to slow down. Visiting a friend in a nursing home, I was acutely aware that she had too much time on her hands while I had to work hard to carve out that precious hour to drive over there and spend some time with her. The gulf between us on this dimension could not be traversed.
No one seems to have enough time, except for those who live in captivity. It is hard to say what enough time would look like. When we seek quality time, divided attention isn’t what we mean. Loved ones, especially, do not appreciate our hands on a keyboard when we are supposedly listening to them. I don’t feel heard when my husband takes sidelong glances back at his computer screen when I am trying to tell him something. I just don’t have the time is a chorus chanted everywhere we go, such that we are moved when someone takes the time to pick up a pen and send us a paper note, or makes the time to get together for a lunch that has nothing to do with advancing their career, or turns away from the computer and really listens. We like to receive total focus, even if we have trouble giving it.
What is a day well spent, anyway? Visiting the sick is one of the most sacred uses of time, according to ancient Jewish tradition. I typed scared instead of sacred, a curious shortcut to insight. We certainly get frightened by the sight of what may lie ahead for us, and this is what brings us to that life-enhancing awareness of the preciousness of every day. We go in and out of noticing that time is running out, that the ultimate deadline is approaching. The best resistance to rushing is to remember we must die,memento moi, that we are fortunate to still have time to walk around in the beauty of the world. We may as well accept this reckoning and pay attention.