“ARE WE THERE YET!?” came the cry from the “way back,” as we called it, of the 60’s model Chevy station wagon. My Dad would shake his head and calmly holler in response, “Not yet,” a wry smile evident on his lips in the rear-view mirror. An eternity would pass, or so it seemed, and up would rise the cry again: “ARE WE THERE YET?!” My brother and I in rapt anticipation, bursting at the seams as we made the two-hour drive from the Connecticut shoreline to my grandparent’s farmhouse in northwestern Massachusetts. It was an adventure of great proportion – a sizable acreage on the Vermont border, an old garage with antique trucks and farm equipment, a barn, and animals – chickens, pigs and cows that came over the ridge to graze, and the love of two of the kindest, most down to earth grandparents anyone could have – all awaiting our weeklong stay. The drive always took the same amount of time, but it also always felt like it took forever and a day to get there.
Our experience of time, according to Marc Wittmann in his study of how humans perceive its passage, actually happens in three second bursts, strung together to create one whole event. We breathe this way, too. Even the present has duration, giving new understanding to living “in the moment.” Our perception shifts also, in relation to proximity of events. Waiting for something exciting to happen; some delightful treat; or for that matter, the light to change when we have somewhere to be causes time to slow down to a near standstill. But as the thing itself approaches, our perception of time changes. The long awaited weeklong vacation is over before we hardly get started. Time as we know it is really just a human construct; the clock a synchronizing mechanism tied to work and economics; the powerful controlling the movement of the hands.
Our Western understanding of time differs markedly from that of Europeans. When my husband and I go out to dinner we can expect things to move along at certain pace, what I’d call a pretty good clip, actually. In America, you are served your before dinner beverage and asked immediately if you’d like to order. In France, on the other hand, this would be an abomination! There is an expectation that one will linger over this first phase of the meal in gentle conversation, without interruption from wait-staff until you are ready; the meal all the more desirous as time allows for anticipation to build into the picture. Culture changes time, even though time doesn’t truly change. Time as we know it results from the coming together of inner desires and outward experience.
It has been about a dozen years now since I received a diagnosis that utterly changed my life. Not that I did anything different because of it, but I did things differently. I was in seminary pursuing my Master of Divinity, on track to being granted fellowship with the UUA. I began this later in life and pecked away at the requirements part time, most of it while still working full time. I would get there, I said, sooner or later, but was of the conviction that I wasn’t in a hurry either. A sudden diagnosis causes one to wonder about how much longer our bodies can keep up with the pace we had set for life; about our goals and their potential to become reality. It creates a sense of urgency. No longer was I “in no hurry.” I felt the need, instead, to hurry up – to reach the finish line before it was moved by some immutable force over which I had no control. Time was no longer on my side. My perception of the space between then and now had been altered by external events and I was in a state of flux unlike any I had known before.
I am, of course, fine, but this illustrates what happens within in response to what is going on around us. Time itself doesn’t change its pace. It is we who change in relation to it. We are in a constant dance, whether we are aware of it or not, along the progression of our lives.
Physicist Alan Lightman, in his Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings, reminds us of how little space in the Universe humanity and our Earth home occupy, but also how little time the extent of our individual lives and life as we understand it occupy in the continuum of time in its entirety. We are quite miniscule in the grand scheme of things, which can be hard to hear! We want to have made a difference; to have created a noticeable shift in the course of time. And we’d like to believe that we needn’t borrow against the future to do so.
Wittmann shares the story of Dostoevsky’s brush with impending death as a prisoner thus condemned; how those last moments appeared to him with intense clarity and attentiveness to the most insignificant details. He experienced the time before his ultimate pardoning as endless, possessed of enormous wealth. Imagine if we were to live our lives – each day – as if it were our last. It sounds cliché, but that level of mindfulness holds such gifts for us. Certainly, I have felt a sense of heightened appreciation for the space in between; the time I have to notice the little things; the gratitude I feel for the craggy birch tree within view of my office window; the wide array of flowers in bloom; the warmth of human touch and generous conversation. I want to soak it all in while I can.
The mathematician and writer, Lillian Lieber, wrote in her 1953 publication on the topic of infinity which prompts larger questions about meaning in life; about the fact of our finitude juxtaposed with our desire for balance and completeness; and this in an infinite world. And perhaps this is a bit of the quandary for those of us feeling like we are living on borrowed time. There is so much to do – AND – if the science is right, the world as we know it may be a little more finite than we had planned for. The truth is that our world is always changing, and it will, in some form or another, go on without us, but we want to have a modicum of control, I think, over how we leave it, how rapidly it changes from something we recognize to something “otherworldly.” And this, too, creates the urgency we feel. Couple this with the fact that we are not getting any younger and now we have upped the ante.
This element of restlessness seems to have overcome us and perhaps that is a good thing if the alternative is complacency. But I want us to be careful, also, to not fall prey to our enculturation. Carey Nieuwhof writes about the concept of “productivity shame,” the feeling that you’ve never done enough, regardless of time spent or tasks completed. In western culture there is a measure of shame attached to being unproductive and we grapple with this on both a conscious and subconscious level. Our meaning is derived from accomplishments; associated with doing as opposed to being. Those of you who studied meaning making in aging last fall with me will remember that so much of it is really based in what we value – the tangible only the physical evidence of what we hold most closely in our hearts. But our hearts are full up, you say, our lists are long – not just “to do” lists, but our “to be” lists, too. Legacy matters. What ways of being in the world do we want to be remembered for? To what are we called?
Our dharma – our path; our truth; our great inner possibility waiting to be declared, embodied, and brought forth, awaits each of us. In all of our hearts is a passion calling out; something uniquely ours and made for this moment in time. If Augustine is right, our urgency lies in the need to rest in the Ultimate Ground of Being, thereby enabling us to discern what it is we are called to. We need only slow down and attend to it, in order to bring it into consciousness. Writer and teacher, Stephen Cope, suggests that our dharma arises out of the intersection of our deepest gifts and the times in which we live; that it is a response to urgent needs of the moment which must be unearthed and brought to light. Each of us sees the state of our world through different eyes; the lens of our being offering clarity that is ours alone to hold. We can feel it; choose to attend to it; figure out what action is most meaningful for us. In so doing we are enabled to transform some portion of our world.
Lightman puts it this way,
“What I feel, and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time . . . not part of the void . . . not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment.”
This seems to be the key to overcoming that sense of living on borrowed time – the ability to set aside the ‘what if’s’ and the ‘to do’s’, the ‘must have’s’ and the ‘I wishes’ long enough to be present to the moment you are in. It is countercultural in these parts to take things as they come, one at a time with room to breathe in between, to reflect on meaning and value, to be and to allow that being to inform our doing.
I invite you in these days of urgency and rapid change to piece together moments of rest where you can sink into the meaningfulness of the simple fact of our living; wherein desire will loosen its grip and time will offer you insights that would otherwise pass you by. May you come to find the one true thing that rises up from your joyful soul; the call uniquely yours that meets our times and transforms our world ever so gently toward it’s hoped for peace.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
July 25, 2021