There's No Time
Time is a quizzical thing, so present yet so intangible. We need it yet simultaneously loathe it. It provides us the means to both enjoy life and ruin it at the same time. It is a fascinating thing yet its mystery has led many to a misconstrued understanding of its nature. I have found this misinterpretation particularly prevalent in the way that our actions often fail to reflect our priorities. We say yes to the coffee date invitations with an old friend and then regret the decision because we know it means one more unnecessary commitment in our lives. We create fitness and financial goals but fail to meet them when our schedules fill with other activities. In both cases, we are left feeling unfulfilled. Why do our actions not reflect our priorities? What does our understanding of time have to do with this dissonance? I believe it’s because we have the wrong “time paradigm”.
The Rock Paradigm
The paradigm I see most people hold (myself included) is what I call the “Rock Paradigm”. We understand time to be like a rock: it can be discarded or held, lost or found. We believe we can control it and bend it to our will. A typical phrase spoken from this paradigm is “I don’t have time” because time is perceived to be something that is “have-able”. We often operate out of this paradigm because I believe we are uncomfortable with accepting responsibility for how we use our time. When we are left with more things to do than we can realistically achieve, we dream of simply creating more time. This paradigm is both misleading and paralyzing.
The River Paradigm
The alternative paradigm is what I like to call the “River Paradigm”. From this paradigm, time is perceived as having a beginning and end while being infinitely wide. As it is with rivers, it cannot be held or paused, had or lost; it can only be utilized. It is an endless flowing stream of potential that cannot be stopped, nor can it be reversed. A common phrase spoken from this paradigm is “I didn’t prioritize that”, since time is understood to be something to use but never had. People operating from this paradigm take responsibility for how they choose to use their time. They recognize that saying yes to one thing means saying no to another, and they take full ownership of even the most difficult decisions that they make.
Floating, Fishing, or Flying
The two keys to living from the river paradigm are (a) accepting that you cannot keep time from advancing while (b) choosing the way in which you will advance. For example, imagine that spread out across the infinitely wide river are various types of currents with varying speeds and obstacles. Near the shore you have the calm, slow-moving waters. It’s the type of water you can take your inner tube down and just chill. Think of this as the slower, more relaxed seasons when life appears to be moving slower (i.e. time between jobs, moving to a new city, recovering from an illness or injury, etc.). Deeper into the river is where all the fish are. It’s wide open which means you have plenty of room to spread your nets far and wide to catch lots of fish. This is like the times when you feel like you’re being spread thin, though it is often these season where we get things done and accomplish a lot (i.e. the times when you’re free from extra responsibilities and can focus on achieving certain goals). Even further from the shore is where the rapids are. Deep rocks cause white, churning rapids that make for a break-neck speed adventure, sending you flying down the stream in simultaneous joy and terror. It’s where time seems to move faster and more intense than any other season (i.e. a baby being born, finals week, juggling multiple sport and activities, etc.).
While there is a level of control over whether one floats, fishes, or flies, there is another aspect to time that is less controllable: season. Depending on the season in which you find yourself in the river of time, your choices and/or progress may be influenced by forces outside your control. When I worked in commercial fishing in Alaska for a summer, we were limited to a four-week time table. In the winter time, trying to float down a river while pushing through massive bodies of ice would definitely impede your progress and make each mile much harder to gain. Spring runoff creates faster and more dangerous whitewater rapids, changing the type of experience you would have in those streams. In the same way that “weather” seasons influence the type of activity appropriate for that moment, so the “life” season we find ourselves in will influence what we are able to do as well as what we ought to do. This is important to note as it allows us the freedom to change what our priorities are depending on the given season. There have been seasons in my life where I have had heavy restraints on my my ability to pursue certain goals of mine such as writing a book, designing a chess set, or doing a double pitch rock climb (still working on that one). Then there have been other seasons in which I’ve had the freedom to pursue these goals. When we learn to recognize and embrace the season of life we are in, we begin to learn how to best flow in the river of time, making the most of every moment we are gifted with.
I have found there are two primary reasons we struggle to flow well in the river of time. The first reason is guilt. Guilt is especially prevalent as we seek to align our actions with our priorities in relationships (although it is present in our health, career, recreation, etc.). Too often have I felt guilty about not spending time with certain friends or acquaintances or guilty that I did spend time with them when I knew I should have spent it doing things I actually prioritized more. This is very difficult as it forces us to risk offending someone by telling them that there is something or someone else that we prioritize more than spending time with them (at least in the present moment). Let me be clear: this is not to say that you do not VALUE the person, but rather you do not PRIORITIZE them. This is a critical distinction and we often fail to understand the difference. I value all humans equally because I believe we were all created holding the same value regardless of our actions or merit. I do not, however, prioritize all people the same. None of us has access to limitless time or resources, meaning we must be selective in how we utilize the little time that we are given, which means it is impossible to prioritize everyone and everything the same. To think we can is to live in dangerous self-deception. We must quickly accept this reality if our actions are to ever align with what we most deeply desire in life.
I have found that the other reason behind our confusion of time is fear. Whether we admit it or not, we are so afraid of the opinion of others that we let that fear control our actions and our emotions. Have you ever feared disappointing that acquaintance of yours when they ask to hang out Thursday night after work but you simply had too many things to do to sacrifice your only free night of the week? Maybe you’ve felt the fear of losing your reputation as being the “disciplined guy” when people discover you chose to sleep in instead of work out yesterday? Guilty as charged. Regardless of what aligns with our priorities, we care more about impressing people. If we live our lives based on fear, we will forever be held captive to the wishes and wants of others instead of the deepest desires of our soul.
So what might it look like to live our lives aligned? How can we move from viewing time as a rock and instead understand it to be more like a river? The most important step is to first identify what you prioritize most in life and then make sure that you give those things the very best of your time and resources. Note that I said “best” and not “most”. Often times we demonstrate what we prioritize by giving it the bulk of our time. However, like we saw earlier, certain seasons may require more of our time while other seasons require less. Somes giving the best of your time means different things. In certain seasons it may mean lots of time and in other seasons not so much. The important thing is to search for what the season requires, a task that is far from cut and dry (things tend to get a little wet when you’re on a river).
Once you’ve identified what you value most in life, you can check to see if you are living aligned by asking yourself if you have consistently felt emotionally and spiritually fulfilled. I say “consistently” since there may be moments when our emotions fluctuate and make us feel like we aren’t doing enough. Emotions are fickle like this so it is to be expected. However, when we are living aligned lives, we ought to be able to look back at the way we have utilized our time and identify whether or not our actions aligned with our priorities.
Master or Slave
In which way do you view the time that you are given? Do you find yourself volunteering for slavery by saying things like “I didn’t have enough time to…”, or “If I had had more time I would have…”? Such statements make us captive to guilt and fear and keep us from fulfilling our unique purpose. None of us can speed up, slow down, or multiply time. We simply have what we are given. We are neither time’s master nor its slave but rather its occupant. How could your perception of time change the way in which you align your actions with your priorities? We can either blame the river when our expectations go unmet or we can embrace the constraints of our gracious host known as time. Only when we “go with the flow” can we arrive where we want to go.