Nothing is more precious than time.
It’s not an accident that we celebrate birthdays — full orbit trips around our star — in addition to milestones of physical, mental, or social accomplishment. It’s also of interest to note that when we pledge ourself in marriage, we swear to be together ’til death do us part. In both cases, we are celebrating the passage and gift of time. Time is the most precious and the most personal thing we have to gift. Our allotted time is very limited, and once it passes, there is no getting it back. No amount of wealth or social connections can retrieve time lost. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
As far back as we are able to glimpse into our history, people traded in goods and services. We make things. It takes the time it takes. Some tasks can’t be hurried and some are tied to events beyond our control, like weather and natural disasters. But we didn’t start selling our actual time, as opposed to goods and services, until recently. We sell our time cheap and value it even less.
When people talk about “slow quitting,” they are talking about minimizing what they accomplish during their work days. Those who engage in this feel justified by whatever work-related pressures they are under. But what a colossal waste of time. All those cumulative man hours just pilfered away with nothing to show for it but perhaps some vague feeling of “this will show them.” Because whether used on task or not, time is gone. Time — that most precious of things — is just gone. When simply wasted, time is not used for productivity or happiness (if you are lucky, those are one and the same). It just disappears, evaporating without even a memory.
In the early days of my marriage, I worried that, by some evil twist of fate, I wouldn’t get enough time with my life partner. I envied a couple who had been married five years and my parents for having twenty-five years together. Now, we have been together for over thirty, and I understand that no amount of time will ever be enough. My time, all that I have, I happily give to the people I love. At the end of the day, time is the most precious thing I have to give.
Punishment by Taking Away Time
Incarceration as a punishment is universal among social groups. Partially, this form of punishment is used to separate the dangerous from the rest of the society. But the specific need to punish by docking time is keenly felt when a life was taken via violence or even negligence. It feels appropriate to punish murderers by taking away their time. “Time for time” is like “eye for an eye” — there’s poetic justice, no matter how barbaric the punishment might feel once examined cognitively rather than emotionally. It feels fitting and just. Taking away the freedom to make life’s choices is a brutal way of claiming a person’s time. It must be devastating to feel one’s life slipping away while imprisoned and have no means of regaining control of it.
Incarceration is by no means the only way time is taken from us. There are sicknesses and disabilities, natural disasters, bad jobs, long lines to stand in, and time spent on hold. There are many ways to squander time or have time taken away. When we feel like we are made to waste our time, we feel resentment because it comes across as punishment. We get righteously upset at people who feel that our time is theirs to waste.
Time and Attention
When it comes to our perception of time, it is not separable from our ability to focus on a task. We measure the passage of time by external cues, including by how much we manage to accomplish. Thus, those who have trouble concentrating on the work at hand, and have trouble getting things done, have a difficult relationship with time. They lose it. It passes through their fingers like quicksilver while they lack the ability to grab hold of it. Once time is recognized as a precious resource, it is all the more devastating to not be able to focus attention to control how one’s time is spent. Time as a resource is easy to waste.
“The cost of procrastination is the life you could have lived.” — unknown
Volunteers donate their personal time to a cause. That’s a gift that deserves sincere public gratitude. It is always a surprise to me when people look down upon volunteers. Volunteers are giving the most precious gift they can give.
Time is such a transitory thing. We can’t hold on to it. But we can gift it. And that’s a precious gift indeed.
A Boy Who Finds Time
Some years ago, I wrote a short story about a boy who discovers that he has the remarkable ability to find time that others have lost. It’s a strange one, and I made it available for free as a KindleVella on Amazon. I hope you like it.