The stories we construct in many ways become our reality. If you believe something is pressing you down, then at least from your vantage point, it is pressing you down regardless of the physical reality. One of those perceptions is related to our ticking ‘friend’ and ‘nemesis’, time. Unfortunately the stories and metaphors we generally associate with time aren’t exactly helpful.
Slave Master vs. a Butler
As described by Hendricks, many of us think of time as a slave master, drumming a constant beat on a galley ship. We’re the slaves, at the mercy or this cruel figure.
When thinking about time as this external entity, we give away our control. The decision of how to spend our precious moments seizes to be a decision. We flow in the time river without oars, and the current grows faster as we get older.
An alternative framing for slave master time is that of a friendly butler. Thinking of time this way, it starts to heed to our wishes. In practice, this means taking full responsibility of what we choose to do at each point. Language is crucial here, as words become beliefs. Instead of complaining “I can’t, I don’t have the time”, say “I choose not to, since what I’m doing is more important.”
Money vs Plant
Another common metaphor for time is that it’s a scare resource, like money. In ‘Metaphors We Life By’, Lakoff & Johnsen explore the roots and impact of this framing. When viewed through this lens, we’re able to invest, save, lose, waste, and allocate time. Time management becomes equivalent of managing resources, with models for return on investment. While this was partly a consequence of industrialising world, where people were paid by the hour for the first time, as early as 49 AD Seneca wrote: “It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.”
While this framing helps us become more proactive with how we approach each moment, it can also become toxic when taken to the extreme. When something is scarce, we have an urge to protect and hoard it, even when sharing would be ultimately better. And it’s often in idleness when we have our best ideas, so perhaps ‘wasting’ time isn’t always such a waste.
To counter the tendency to make every second productive, we could see time as something akin to a living plant. Yes, it requires tending to, but overt watering will hinder its growth. You can share its cuttings with another without a permanent loss on where you started. There’s a feeling of abundance and growth mixed with care and beauty.
Coal vs River
Time has a tendency to cause suffer when we cling to it. Do you remember that moment, so full of joy, that you wished it would continue forever? Perhaps a wonderful evening with a loved one, when the inner warmth become breathtaking and you tried to desperately capture a slice of it into a photo. Yet our wish to hold onto time, is predicated by stepping outside that particular moment. We lose our presence and become anxious instead of bathing fully in that joy. It’s like grasping a hot piece of coal.
Perhaps we should think, instead, of what it’s like to place our hand in a river. To enjoy the sensation of the flow, dancing with laughter around our fingers. There’s no urge to stop that flow, or grasp any particular water molecule. Only the changing ebb and flow of the present moment. Similar to the buddhist idea of non-attachment, this changes our feeling tone of time from anxiety to acceptance.
The realisation of past and future being inaccessible to us is practically a cliche (see top 100 famous quotes). As many cliches, it carries a timeless (or timeful) wisdom. The past is interpreted in the now. And whatever influence we have on the future, has to be acted on in the present moment.