Making up for—and regretting—lost time
I spend at least some portion of most of my days doing what we call “making up for lost time.” All the things that have not quite gotten done as quickly as they should have—or worse, as quickly as I expected them to be done—claim extra hours from another day along with concentrated high-speed work, sometimes ignoring the futility of speeding ahead with a tired body or mind. But I think most readers will recognize that this isn’t just about me.
There is a challenge in this rat race which requires prudent decisions. But just when we seem to get a handle on our priorities, something goes wrong, offering the same challenge all over again. Worse still, one of the things that goes wrong for almost everybody (provided we have escaped the alternative) is old age. I would place the average peak of efficiency at about age 35. It varies, but there is a combination of health, strength, energy, knowledge, experience, and ease of learning new things which—precisely as a combination—peaks shortly before what we call “middle age”.
Without a degree of spiritual and moral maturity, our overall peak performance will never reach its highest possible standard. But after operating at this peak, and savoring our own abilities for some years, we begin to be aware of our own decline. This happens to nearly everyone at least by the age of 50. It is during this decline that we become far more aware of our finitude, and we often begin to reflect on the things to which we wish we had paid more attention, instead of constantly “making up for lost time.” By our sixties, we may even resolve to make a virtue of necessity, and try to slow down.
When a sincere Christian (one who harbors no illusions that he is somehow owed a long period of “retirement”) deliberately strives to slow down, it is more often a good choice than not. It may seem odd that I should describe “slowing down” as something we must “strive for”, but I suspect there has been no active adult who at some point has not had to personally invest in that striving. What we are striving for, really, is a kind of balance or harmony that permits us to serve God and others without that disruptive and costly freneticism which is so characteristic of our early twenty-first century lives.
This slowing-down enables us to begin to learn the value of “being”, rather than simply “doing”. The emphasis on “being” harkens back to the injunction to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). It creates in us a kind of “presence”—to God, to family, and to others. In the past, almost surely, some lack in this presence has diminished the value of all of our “doing”, despite our best efforts. I still do not believe that this is just about me!
Now, just as we begin to get a handle on all this, we find ourselves betrayed by time itself. Two things happen. First, no matter how much we “slow down”, time goes by faster and faster. I discussed this aspect of aging in an essay I remembered as being written a few months ago, but it turned out to be dated in 2009, Speeding through Time. God forbid that I should slow down to dwell on it again here. Suffice it to say that, at age 69, I am far more aware of time’s furious pace than I was at the tender age of 61. Moreover, a few weeks ago, an 83-year-old friend remarked: “Ah, to be your age again! Time goes faster and faster every year.”
Yes, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. And neither will you enjoy a deliciously slow, relaxed and prolonged retirement, no matter how in the world you try for it. When we are children we are antsy for age. We cannot wait for our birthday; we wish we were 10 or 12, or even (God help us) 16 or 18. But time betrays us all in the end, at least from a purely natural perspective. The more we desire time, the less we have it. The more we want to slow it down, the faster it goes. It is almost as if we were designed expressly to have exactly this experience of time.
And, of course, we were. The positive aspect of this distressing experience is the excellent chance it has of awakening us to what awaits us when our time is up. This is no less salutary for a Christian than for a pagan. The latter should be moved to seek God; the former should be moved to see in God the true and perfect fulfillment of his whole life. This is especially true when we consider the things we begin to regret as we age:
- We will never see our five-year-old child’s smile again or enjoy our baby’s hug. Even all of our living children are in some ways lost to us as children by this horrendous betrayal of time. Yet it would be a grotesquerie to stop-and-lock anyone we love in a particular moment of time, creating a kind of museum in suspended animation to satisfy our emotional yearnings.
- We will regret many things that we did wrong, or people we treated badly, with no way now to go back and make amends.
- We will find ourselves saddened by the realization that we never took a particular opportunity, tried to develop a particular talent, studied a particular subject, or made a point of experiencing something that we were interested in doing—but never did.
- If we have any sense, we will also become increasingly aware of how little we have accomplished (despite having striven to accomplish so much) even if others regard us as very successful. For what any one of us can do (even if the Lord does build the house) is as a drop in the ocean compared with all that needs doing.
But time never really betrays us. It tells us, with increasing intensity as we age, what we are for, whom our limited time must serve, and why even the seeming treachery of time is a gift. For time must by its very nature give way to eternity, in one of two radically different ways. Moreover, with respect to our deepest yearnings, we are better provided for than we know, by this racing passage of time. This great truth is difficult to express in its full intensity, but a few great poets have come very close—writing truly yet without losing their particularity as persons living in a human culture, a human time, a human place.
First let us take the famous poem written in Spanish by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), which has been preserved in her own handwriting:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
“He who has God finds he lacks nothing.” This is the whole point, yet perhaps a modern poet has expressed it in a way which responds more clearly to the authentic human yearnings we must invariably share, in a form we can more easily cherish. There is no more fitting conclusion to this reflection on time than the last two stanzas of “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson (1859 - 1907). He was, as you will see, of a time much like our time, and of a temper much like our own. He was as prone as we are, through our very reminiscences, to slip away yet again from God:
‘Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: bkmajer3729 -
Sep. 26, 2017 2:04 PM ET USA
Very good article; something I find myself doing and fearful about. But I am reminded of the "Good Thief's" words, "Jesus...remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Posted by: man961983010 -
Sep. 20, 2017 4:38 PM ET USA
Most insightful article, particularly about the change in priorities as one enters retirement, the change in focus to the next life rather than this life, tho' leaving behind many regrets. St Theresa very consoling, I find, and being unfamiliar with Hound of Heaven, liked it very much, his insight, his expression, but then, stopped cold: what does 'dravest' mean?? I struggled to gather the meaning at the end, and am unsure of it, so necessary to conclude his thoughts. [JAM: 'Dravest' is an archaic/poetic word which means what you would expect it to mean in the context, from its similarity to our contemporary word 'drive'. It means 'drive away' as in 'reject'.]