Too busy? Keeping perspective can give you all the time in the world.
My eyes flew open to a strange, eerie silence. I rolled over and glared at the red numbers on my alarm clock: 8:32. It hadn't gone off, and I was already late for Sociology. I leapt out of bed, threw on yesterday's clothes and rushed out the door. On the freeway, I grumbled at the sluggish drivers. Don't they realize I'm late? Pulling through the University of Portland's gates, I glanced at the clock in my car, only to discover that my bedside alarm clock was an hour fast and I still had twenty minutes to spare.
My college years were permeated by anxiety about time — there was never enough of it. I kept asking myself how I could possibly get all my reading done, write my papers, prepare for exams, be with friends, sleep, go to church and work with homeless teenagers, all within a 24-hour day. If God expected so much of us, why did He give us so little time to do it in?
Each morning I stepped from my bed onto the time treadmill and panted my way through the day ahead. No matter how fast I went, I fell short of my goals. I was never doing enough, and what I did do wasn't accomplished as expediently, efficiently and effectively as it could have been. The time treadmill made me feel like God was the Great Big Exam Proctor in the sky. I imagined myself scribbling furiously to answer the first essay question only to have Him cut in, "That's it, Jen. Time's up. Surrender your exam immediately."
Technology fuels the time treadmill. Cell phones, DSL, call-waiting and caller ID don't save time as much as they accelerate and complicate it. Why have one phone conversation when I could be having two? Why focus on writing a single article when I could simultaneously be dashing off a dozen e-mails? Why take a long, leisurely walk, and ponder the shifting autumn light, when I could also be chatting on my cell phone?
Separating the Wheat From the Chaff
A few years back, I dog-sat for a woman whose home was cluttered with every imaginable object. In her garage, she had an ominous tower of laundry detergent scoopers; her living room was packed with ditsy souvenirs from every place she'd visited; her coffee table overflowed with cards from holidays long gone (including a Mother's Day card from her pet Pug). This alarmed me. A friend explained, "This woman lived through the Depression. She couldn't toss things if she wanted to."
Oddly enough, despite widespread prosperity, our generation feels poor, too. Our poverty mentality is not related to our material existence but to our relationship with time. Two generations back, they pinched pennies (for weeks on end, my grandfather faithfully re-used a single strand of dental floss which he kept draped over a nail), but our generation pinches minutes or, more accurately, we are pinched by minutes. We just scrape by, sensing that time moves faster than we do, and one of these days, it's going to run out on us completely.
My mother runs estate sales, and comes across the Depression-era mentality all the time, as she sifts through homes brimming with kitsch. She'll find an old wringer washer machine that has been replaced by a new model, yet the old wringer hasn't been tossed. My mom's job is to bring a discerning eye (and a giant dumpster) to sort through it all. She separates the wheat from the chaff, salvaging all that is valuable and chucking all that is not.
Our task, when it comes to time, may be similar to my mother's. Perhaps we allow our days to become filled with junk, simply because we fear a few empty moments. Or perhaps we don't want to let a single opportunity pass us by, so we say yes to more than we can manage. The New Testament's exasperated Martha, who does everything for everyone and then punishes them for it, can take up residence in our own hearts. Martha is a take-charge woman; she gets things done. She is an icon of productivity. But in the grand scheme of things, she's missing out.
Mary, on the other hand, has it down. She might not be as active as Martha, but she gives her time to what is precious. She sits at the Christ's feet, listening to the stories she'll never hear Him tell again, while Martha rushes in circles around her. Mary understood that encountering Christ in the moment before her was the best part of life, and she held on with all her might.
Instead of panting my college days away on the time treadmill, I could have eased-up on myself. Looking back, I see shortcuts that would have made me less frazzled. I could have relaxed a bit about my G.P.A. I could have skimmed more books, and said no to a few more people. I could have ordered my life around the sanity-saving advice of one of my mentors: "Learn to do just as well as you can in the moment you're in, with the resources you have."
Truly effective people learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. They let the small stuff go. I'm not so good at this. One time, while turning in a torturous twenty-page paper, I suddenly realized that I'd left the bibliography at home. I was so frustrated that I nearly broke down in front of my teacher. His stern face softened and he shook his head at me. "Jenny, there are big things in life, and there are little things. This is a little thing."
Discernment is not just about learning how to spend our time. It is, in a deeper sense, learning what time is. When we realize that every moment is a gift, our days become infused with gratitude. As I write, my toddler daughter stares out the living room window. A few moments ago, I caught her there, seeped in late afternoon sunlight. She looked up at me, blinked, and said in her best toddlerease: "Chou-Chou God, Sun." (Translation: thank you, God, for the sun.)
My daughter's gratitude reminds me that it is more natural to pause, to lean into the fullness of the moment before us, than it is to pant our lives away on the time treadmill. She reminds me to live in the present, because as a toddler, that's just about all she knows. C.S. Lewis wrote that the present moment is, in some sense, the only one. "The present is the point at which time touches eternity . . . in it alone, freedom and actuality are offered."
By becoming more discerning about time, we find that we actually have enough of it. With Mary, we can approach every moment armed with this question: what is the one thing needful? This question helps us grasp the wheat and chuck the chaff. Only then can we understand why "enough" is a wonderful word.
Copyright 2004 Jenny Schroedel. All rights reserved.