Unbeknownst to me, I’ve fought a battle against time my entire life, or rather a warped perspective of it: an inability to track it, a sense that I’m too far ahead or (more often) too far behind, an ever-present backdrop of dread gnawing at my mind, whispering memento moris for every intangible second that slips through my fingers however tightly they’re grasped.
Whatever I needed to accomplish, whatever the obstacle that had to be overcome, whatever brokenness needed fixed, it ultimately boiled down to this: time is the enemy. Of course, it isn’t really. Time is a neutral reality at its absolute worst, but, rightly understood, an undeniable blessing. Time demands and allows for change, the kind that makes possible repentance and the cultivation of virtue; the kind that allows those of us who might have been once for all damned at the beginning to experience divine movement and have the veil of creation lifted, exposing the glorious Story of which we’re a part, and to accept our assigned role and our intended fate.
If time is a blessing and a divine mercy, how can it be seen as the enemy?
Seen is the key. It, like all problems at their root, is a matter of perception. A trick of the mind. Time is absolutely tangible and absolutely real at one point only: the present. And our minds don’t care to process things as immeasurable as the present. By the time you’ve considered the present, the moment you’ve considered is past. Is the present this minute? This second? This nanosecond? And what happens in the present is in a certain sense divided from both the past and future, it exists on its own as the point at which we can act. The past cannot be changed and the future is unknowable, but both the past and future can be strung together and explained. This happened then this happened then this happened. Or this will happen then this will happen then this will happen.
Instead of acting in the present, we ruminate. And rumination can be a problem. I’ve read that the opposite of gratitude is not ingratitude, but rumination. Thanks can be given in the present alone. If we are constantly dwelling on what we once had or wished we had had, or what we will eventually get and accomplish, our focus is never directed at what we have presently. What we have to be thankful for is never assessed and what is before us is hardly seen.
For me, this has meant an ongoing restlessness. A nagging feeling that something needs to be done, though I’ve never known what. Time is being wasted, burnt up, spent, never to be returned. And I haven’t done something. I haven’t done more. I don’t know what I could have ever done, but I know I haven’t done enough of it. Worked harder? Worked smarter? Worked longer? Made this move instead of that move? And once I think I’ve figured that part out, then my thoughts move out of the past to the future. I will work harder. I will work smarter. I will work longer. I will make that move instead of the other.
And I spin my wheels, and a decade passes, and another. And each time I stop to wonder I realize that, essentially, I’m still where I started: restlessly ruminating on past and future, never where I want to be.
Or, better said, never where I actually am. Here and now with the blessings and the work that stand before me.
Life is lived in the present only. And gratitude is expressed in the present only. And the regrets of the past and the bigger plans of the future are both founded on the same thing: the small building blocks of tedious labor that are directly in front of us here and now. You don’t really see them or appreciate them. They are only boxes to check off to achieve some future that never comes because by the time it arrives it too will be a present of tedious checkboxes that are slowing your race to some other future that will itself be a set of tedious checkboxes. Nothing is seen. Nothing is appreciated. Nothing is lived.
Time is not the enemy. It is right here to do what you will with it. And many of us choose to not notice it. I know I don’t.
Perhaps what I’m saying would be better illustrated with Scripture. Once I noticed this (thanks to Nicole Roccas’ great book Time and Despondency), it has really put into perspective how the small and the tedious and the ordinary are vessels for holiness if we choose them to be.
On the third day when they visited Christ’s tomb, did they find it empty? Not quite. Of course, the resurrected Christ was not there, but John 20 tells us what was:
"Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself." (John 20:6-7, AKJV)
It is already ridiculous that the Creator would be incarnated as man and die at the hands of His creation, but there is something peculiar and touching that presumably His first act after the Crucifixion, the Harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection was to fold a piece of cloth that had covered His head. I suspect no one will ever have a more interesting past or a more promising future on which to ruminate than the resurrected Christ, but He acted intentionally in the present doing something that I didn’t even notice in 30 years of bible reading, doing something tedious and repetitive and seemingly unimportant that we disregard or avoid in our own lives.
All that to say, it’s become clear that time isn’t the enemy and never was and never will be. The enemy is the disordered mind, its ruminations and the restlessness they birth.
But the remedy has already been given for us in Psalm 46:10:
"Be still, and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10, AKJV)
Made even clearer in the NASB translation:
Stop. Give thanks. Embrace the ordinary. Live in the present.
I say this to myself above all others.