Speeding through Time
Now in my early sixties, I don’t work as hard as I did ten or twenty or thirty years ago. Gone is the ability to do repeated late nights with only four or five hours of sleep. I spent much of the first twenty-five years of my working life on that sort of schedule, mostly in connection with one form of apostolic work or another, and I didn’t always make the best decisions for my family. But eventually, through the school of hard knocks, I learned something I should have known all along: Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it (Psalm 127).
For most of us, I think, our labor is some combination of a pure offering to God and vain effort. Here the word “vain” has two senses, encompassing both work that is done for the wrong reasons (implying some sort of vanity) and work that is bereft of fruit. For serious Christians with good spiritual direction, the amount of vanity should become progressively smaller. Yet if we’re imperfect—and we are imperfect—it will nearly always be there to some degree. There are many reasons to regret such vain work after the fact, but as I grow older, my main reason for regret is that such great devotion to “my own” efforts has kept me too busy to appreciate the many gifts with which God has continuously surrounded me.
I hasten to add that we are not called to endlessly savor our blessings, lest we end by loving them more than the One who blesses. But we ought at least to be aware of them, instead of striving always for whatever it is that we don’t have, whether some material possession or some power or influence, even if for a good purpose. With this in mind, over the last few years I’ve been consciously trying to slow down a bit so that I can become more appreciative of the good that surrounds me. This can take many forms. For example, it may mean stopping to notice other people with their gifts and needs, or it may mean taking time to enjoy the wondrous beauties of nature.
It is definitely possible to learn to live more fully in the moment, to relax a bit and practice the presence of God, to permit our souls to be nourished instead of always pressing relentlessly on to the next objective. But in attempting to develop these habits, I’ve encountered a truth I did not expect: We can slow ourselves down, but we cannot slow time down. It always seemed to me that if we could slow ourselves down a bit, we would find that time itself would seem to slow down. And since most of us work less as we get into our sixties and seventies, I had always suspected that as we age the days, weeks, months and years would appear to pass more slowly.
This is not the case. Apart from the long endurance of a deep sorrow, during which time can indeed seem to drag, the common experience of people as they age is that they look back on each year as having disappeared faster than the year before. Contrary to what I imagined, this does not change as we downshift. No, the scenery keeps going by faster and faster regardless. If anecdotal evidence is to be trusted, God has built this into us: The older we get, the faster time flies.
I have realized for quite some time that getting old is a blessing because, as our bodies and minds fail, we increasingly realize our dependence on God. We also realize that our time is getting relatively short, an insight generally lost on the young, though none of us knows either the day or the hour. For both reasons, the aging process seems designed to help us make progressively more space for God. But what I did not realize was that as we age we also perceive the passage of time as accelerating.
We may have reduced our responsibilities; we may be taking more time out to smell the roses; but we still find not only that our time is short, but that we are moving progressively more quickly through it. We learn at last that only eternity can stop this uncontrolled flight, this rapidly receding tide of temporal life. And we learn also that only in its headlong rush does time reveal itself for what it really is: The short and ever shorter path to God.
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