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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Time Famine

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 30, 2000

I know that it has felt like we've been in the midst of a new ice age recently. The winter that was never going to get here finally arrived-- with a vengeance! I can't remember it being as cold as it has been, for as steady a period of time. Not since I lived in Vermont, anyway, where the temperature hovered around zero just about all winter. (That's one of the prices you pay for being able to live in Vermont, I guess.)

But you know, even now, in the midst of winter (and we're just about at the mid-point, I think), things are starting to look up. If we really strain our necks, we can see springtime there-- just down the road a piece. Oh, we'll still have the cold weather with us for a while, I know; God knows how many more snowstorms we might have between now and Easter. But, have you happened to notice how much lighter it is outside now, at around five o'clock? The days aren't all twilight anymore; there's actually a bit more sunlight; something inside tells us we've turned a corner toward spring. At least we can hope...

I don't know about you, but I really covet these extra little bits of daylight. Somehow, they make the day seem longer; it makes it seem like we've got more time in the day to accomplish:

So many deeds cry out to be done,
and always urgently.
Time presses; the world moves on…

How quickly time seems to pass! "Our lives are but a little gleam of life between two eternities," Carlyle wrote. We are all living on borrowed time; none of us can tell how long our years will be numbered. And we seem in such a hurry to accomplish all we need to do. It's like a New Yorker cartoon I saw not too long ago. An obvious Yuppie-type fellow is standing at a deli counter, looking at his watch, and he's berating the clerk: "Hurry up, hurry up. I've only got a few more decades on this planet."

"We are prepared to be starved before we are hungry," Thoreau wrote, most perceptibly, back in 1854. He saw the famine coming: the "Time Famine" just about all of us seem to suffer from: We live in a land of abundance, where most of want for very little, really. The one thing most of us lack, is time; time to accomplish all the day puts before us.

"Time is the great enemy," suggests Winifred Holtby.

"Time chops at us like an iron hoe," writes the poet Mary Oliver.

"Times does us violence," adds Simone Weil.

How odd it is for a simple dimension of reality to be maligned so fiercely by otherwise rational voices... There are other, saner ways to look at time, of course: We can see time as a resource we have-- ours to manage as efficiently as we're able. "I must govern the clock, and not be governed by it," Golda Meir once wisely observed. A whole industry of books, tools, seminars, and resources has grown up to help people "manage their time".

But still, time appears to us as a "thief in the night" sometimes, stealing away the few leisure or contemplative hours we thought we had safely tucked away. Faster, faster, all things seem to fly by...

Within the lifetimes of any of us, the speed of the lives we lead has increased dramatically. How do we respond to these lives that are already packed with too much to do-- that are already hurtling forward all too quickly? We try to cram more in, get more accomplished-- and especially, we try to move faster and faster. We have been taught that speed is the key we need to gain mastery over the world, mastery over time.

As the external speed of our cultural accelerates, our internal speeds get dragged along as well. In his book Time Wars, Jeremy Rifkin wrote: "We have quickened the pace of life only to become less patient. We have become more organized but less spontaneous, less joyful. We are better prepared to act on the future but less able to enjoy the present and reflect on the past."

We are time-famished; we are starved for authentic human moments; for genuine human contact; for life-enhancing, soul-shaking experiences; for conversation and intimacy with friends and lovers and family members that pierces our being, plants new seeds of kinship, and gives the flower of love time to grow.

Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician, writes about a pathology-- a physical illness-- he calls "time sickness". Dr. Dossey says that people suffering from this illness believe that their "time is getting away [from them], that there isn't enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up." He continues: "The trouble is, the body has limits that it imposes upon us. And the body will not be fooled if we try to beat it into submission and ask more of it than it can deliver in a 24-hour day." Through bio-feedback, meditation, and prayer, Dossey helps people who are time-sick to slow down, and, as he says "step out of time". He tries to help them take "time exits" off of the bullet train that society has most of us on.

Sometimes, we can schedule these "time exits" on our own: times of meditation and contemplation... walks in the woods... times at the gym... an hour a day put aside for reading... an afternoon nap... Any of these can slow us down, give our bodies time to replenish and reconnect, and ease us gently into the next stage of our journey.

But again, we need to be conscious and deliberate about taking these "time exits". If we aren't, our bodies might schedule them for us, and just shut down-- with illness, or disease, or accidents. "Illness is the Western world's only acceptable form of meditation," Anne Wilson Shaef once said. Just as the God in Genesis worked six days on Creation-- "and on the seventh day he rested"-- so our bodies (and our psyches) need a rhythm of work and rest... tightening and loosening... work and rest...

Still, the days of our years seem to go by so fast; the circles and cycles of our lives seem to be spinning so quickly. The older we get, the faster the years go by, so the old saying goes (and in my experience, it's gospel truth).

Richard Saltus has written:

"Remember how, in childhood, a day or a week could be an eternity? But now that we're older, how quickly the weeks, months, even years can race by in a blur. Almost anyone in his 30s, 40s, or beyond will agree that time seems to have speeded up, or suffered inflation, so that it doesn't get you as much as it used to. 'The summer's just started, and now it's gone,' an adult will sigh. Or, seeing an 8-year old grandson after a long absence, grandma is apt to say, 'It seems only yesterday that you were a baby.'

"The 8-year old, by contrast, might think an hour with grandma an impossibly long stay."

According to a psychologist named William Friedman (who wrote a book in 1991 called About Time), one of the reasons time passes so slowly for children is that "a child doesn't understand time patterns" like days and weeks and months and years. "He's stuck in the present, and it can seem interminable."

Can you imagine being "stuck" in the present moment? Interminable, yes-- but how rich-- how wondrous-- how life-sustaining and productive such an attitude toward life could be. Maybe this is a key to curing our own "time sickness": to live in the moment; to cure our time hunger by ingesting each moment as a little pill of life-- of zest-- of wonder-- of youthful creativity and childlike joy.

Another psychologist, Richard A. Block of the University of Montana adds that those times in life that are punctuated by more vivid and memorable events seem fuller than those times that are locked in the repetition of our routine.

Objectively, of course, time passes at the same rate, no matter what we're doing. A minute is a minute; an hour is an hour-- whether we're washing dishes or working with customers in a store or at the office, or watching the Super Bowl, live, in person, in Atlanta.

But subjectively, inside ourselves, time seems to move differently depending if we're doing something "different"-- something interesting, something out of the ordinary, something exciting, something frightening even-- than if we're locked in the same routine, hour after hour, constantly watching the clock.

Interestingly, "time flies when we're having fun," the adage goes-- and to a degree, that’s true.

But it's also true, as Dr. Block has said, that those times that are marked by "more vivid and memorable events seem fuller than those times that are locked in the repetition of our routine."

Exciting time-- joy-filled, wondrous, creative, inspiring, edifying times--may take up no more time than the dreary, mundane, routine times do-- but they seem, somehow more "worthwhile" than lesser time do.

One thing I've discovered as a biographer is that you just can't give equal space and attention to everything in a person's life-- not if you have an editor who says 350 pages, tops, and means it. (I heard recently of someone at the Hoover Institution in California who is at work on a thirteen volume biography of Herbert Hoover. Most of us don't have that luxury.) So you have to choose, and edit, and pare down the ordinary times and give more space and time to the extraordinary, the historic, the heroic.

If we were each to write our memoirs, we'd give more pages to the interesting, important events (and periods of our lives) than we would to the day in/day out stuff (even though we probably spend 325 of the 350 pages we've been allotted in the day in/day out routines we live).

So maybe here's another key-- another cure for our time famine: Get out of the routine as much as you can; do some different things; see some different sites; meet some different people; take more risks; watch more sunsets; pick more daisies. You know the litany as well as I do-- go out and do it! Life's too short not to.

Lend your voices only to sounds of freedom,
No longer lend your strength to that you wish to be free from.
Fill your lives with love and bravery and you shall lead
a life uncommon.

A life uncommon is a life where our time serves us, and not we it.

A life uncommon may last 20 years or 30 or 80 or 100. The worth of our lives is not best determined how long our lives happen to be chronologically. The worth of our lives is determined how well we live the span of years we have been given.

The worth of our lives is not best determined by how much money we have in the bank, or how big our houses are, or how new the car we drive is. The worth of our lives is determined in how well we share what we have been given as a clear reflection of the divine gift of our lives itself.

We can slow down these lives of ours.
But it won't happen by itself.
It takes conscious effort, and conscious choice:

See what is really important,
and concentrate on that.
Let the distractions fade,
the unnecessary appendages fall away.
Then life will be a blessing
and not a curse.

When we discern what it is we are here to do,
then we can do our jobs well,
from the fullness of our beings.
Then we won't be spending all our time
putting out other people's fires
and tilting at other people's windmills
and fattening other people's bank accounts.

We will be serving them instead
as ourselves
genuinely
from the core of who we are.

To find what it is we're after,
why we're here,
to focus on what we need to do
one needs to take time:
time to stop, to look within,
to listen to the voice of the Spirit,
ever-there, but usually
drowned out or covered over
by some false imitation voice
of commercialism.

Time weighs heavily
if we always live according to schedules, timetables, and have-to-do lists.
If we live that way, we drag ourselves from one meeting to the next.
But when we are in harmony with our times,
the days of our living,
then we skip and jump down the street,
across the parking lot,
as though we were young again,
as though the weight we carry
was as light as a feather,
a feather on the breath of God.

Life is a dance, and not a race.
So, as much as you're able, take it as slow as you can--
Hear the music before the song is over.

 


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