Friday, April 16, 2010

WHY I WRITE ABOUT TIME

A REFLECTION

In recent weeks, my writing pace has slowed. I am thankful for that. It has allowed me to look back over my work and reflect on what is important to me. No one likes change, but I welcome this one.

I write thematically. Last week, I looked over several old pieces and started to think about the themes that occupy me most. I asked myself: "Why do I write about these things? Why are they important to me? Is it apparent why they are important?" Perhaps it is apparent why I write about reason, dignity, evidence, law, power, money, death, fairness, equality and happiness. Perhaps it isn't. Perhaps people think it's just because I am a hermit who writes whatever he thinks on a certain day.

But that would be incorrect. Common threads unite all my themes. Those threads bind all my pieces together. Taken together, they present an overall philosophy about our existence. I am a consummate individualist: I never surrender who I am. I do not like to follow, but neither am I a zealous leader. I am not presumptuous enough for that. If my ideas gain traction, it is by quiet assent, not by compulsion or advocacy. In the end, I am a voice against all the forces in our society that subvert individual creativity and value. I criticize commerce because commerce is antithetical to both. I do not like forces that instrumentalize human beings or reduce them to purposes. I do not like convention. That is why I write satire, too. Normality makes me laugh--hard.

Among the threads that unite my work is a respect for time. I write about time in many ways. But in the end I admonish my readers to remember that time is vital because it is all we have. Without time, we cannot cultivate our interests or expand our personalities. Nor can we experience joy or feel good about ourselves. Yet so many forces compete for our time. When we lose our time to some competing interest, we lose the opportunity to live for ourselves. That is one reason why I am so critical of employment: Employment robs our best time and leaves nothing for us. It purports to "compensate" us for the robbery with a paycheck. But what good is pay (even really poor pay) if you can't spend it until your best time is gone? We have just a limited time to experience positive emotions before we die. If we give up our time in unpleasant ways, we never get it back to spend it pleasantly. We have only one shot at joy.

My views about time have changed significantly over the years. Before my father died in 2006, I had a very dismissive attitude about time: I always thought I would have more. I did not mind working for 14 hours a day in an office because I knew there would be time to enjoy myself later in life. I had smug assumptions; I thought life would just wait for me as I slaved away, wasting my time. I thought for sure that I would have at least 25 more years with my mother and father. I thought they could wait until I put in all that work, so it wouldn't hurt if I skipped seeing them for Christmas. I thought they would understand if I had to work a weekend.

But all those smug assumptions came crashing down when my father died. He died without any warning. In January 2006, he was a healthy 58-year-old who ran half-marathons every year. Then he developed pancreatic cancer. By June 2006, he was dead. And I had skipped his birthday every year for five years before that because I had no idea that he could die. I was focused on my "traditional career program." I did not respect time. And I suffered for it.

Thankfully, I learned my lesson. Only after living with death did I start to respect time. It made me rue the choices I had made in my life. I did not care about "success" any more. After all, what good does "success" do when you can suddenly just die at any moment like my Dad? Who cares whether you get a certain job or own a home? It's all meaningless; it can all end before you know it. Recognizing how fast life can end makes you respect time. And it makes you start spending your time more wisely, too.

Within six months after my father's death, I resigned my job at the law firm. It came to nauseate me. It probably would have nauseated me even if my father had not died. But after experiencing his death, I simply could not bear the pettiness of law practice. I could not bear hearing people whine and bicker about money. I could not bear the infighting about filing papers, sharing copy costs, managing calendars and setting docket dates. And I could not bear the ceaseless criticism about "not moving fast enough" to make profits on cases. It all seemed utterly, utterly meaningless. I did not care in the least. After all, what difference did all this make? I could just die suddenly like my father; what good what profits and docket dates do then?

When my father lay dying, he was not thinking about success, careers or money. He was thinking about his own existence. He was thinking about the fact that his time was running out; and whether he had spent it well.

I took that lesson to heart: Was I spending my time well? Or was I wasting it in a chase after meaningless rewards? I concluded that I was wasting it. I began living in the awareness of death; and that made me treasure my life. I started savoring my time. I resented anyone and anything that impinged on my time; for how was I to know whether I would be here tomorrow? I wanted to be master of my own time, because time gave me my chance to live. Obviously, this did not make me a good candidate for employment. So I had to adjust my approach to supporting myself.

I contented myself with making just enough money to feed and house myself. And I did so in a way that did not rob my time and dignity. Since then, I have been happier with my lot. For the most part, I am master of my time. That brings its own rewards.

I never forget what happened to my father. It tempers me whenever I feel the impulse to get into the "success race." I reflect on how little time I have to relish my life. Then I think how much time I will have to yield in order to achieve "career success." That is to say nothing about the sacrifices in dignity, ethics and happiness I would have to make to achieve it. Finally, I think: "Even if I do achieve 'career success,' what will I feel? What good will it do? What if I simply die on the way? When I lay dying, what will I think about how I've spent my time? Will I regret all the days and nights I toiled in an office fighting for a company's profit?"

These thoughts comfort me. They assure me that I have made the right decision for my life. Having said that, I know not everyone will make the same decision. My views about time reflect my experiences. They work for me because I live in the awareness of death. My respect for time intertwines with my respect for death. After all, life--with all the joy and misery it can write upon our bodies--hangs by a thread. It can end instantly. And life is time: There is our time, then there is death.

That is a pretty good impulsion to spend our time well. Because once it's over, we're over, too.

That is why I write about time: It is the tragic, ever-diminishing coating that encapsulates us all. When we waste it, we waste ourselves. So I choose not to intentionally waste it on anything that does not bring me joy.

1 comment:

MaxThrust said...

Great post! This is one of my favorite books, if you get time someday I'd recommend it:

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death