As 2021 comes to a close, everywhere I look at home and at work I see projects waiting to be started or finished. Often, it seems, there’s never time enough. I’m not alone. Americans are experiencing “time scarcity,” a malady so common that social scientists even gave it a name. This pressure to fit everything in impacts both individual and public health by causing an elevated pulse, shortness of breath, and other symptoms of anxiety and depression. Not to mention, for me anyway, impatience towards anyone within a six-foot radius, usually my poor husband.
I often remind myself that time is not just about the here and now but also a long view. It seems that only in memory time stops, or we want it to. So many moments come to mind. Writer Brian Doyle called them an “eternal parade of small surprises.” The feelings are indescribable, but I can recall the scenes. Here are two I cherish.
I’m not yet 17. My best friend and I walk two blocks home one late December night after a classmate’s party. As Karen and I stroll to my house arm and arm, snowflakes flutter down in papery tufts. We could be inside a snow globe. Ours are the only footprints through the snow. At just this moment, everything in my small world is perfect.
I’m not yet 30. My 6-year-old looks out the window at the sudden rain. Alex is a skinny kid, all knees and elbows. This day I return to is one of those blue, blue days that in winter you don’t think will ever arrive and then it’s 80 degrees in May. Sun dissolves into a warm downpour. Alex and I run barefoot in the driveway and slop through the puddles. Pictures are taken, the kind that must be developed: film sent off and returned within five days to forever represent your past. I don’t need photos to remember our dance in the rain. It was the only one. That boy is now 30.
In the time machine of our hearts most of us want only to go back, which is a paradoxical lesson in savoring the present. That seems harder and harder to do. Researchers Sanford DeVoe and Jeffrey Pfeffer write, “Time pressure is at least partly a result of ... the perception of time’s value.”
People who are financially secure are even more harried. If you make a higher wage per hour, you tend to view your time as more important. You’re compelled not to waste it by doing nothing or even by performing jobs that some deem below them, like cleaning their own toilets or mowing lawns. Ironically creativity stems from idling away an hour or two and having the space to make mistakes. I get my best ideas while dusting or weeding.
There will likely never be a standard which universally determines what “time” is worth. No matter what’s in our bank accounts, we all have just 24 hours a day. Time is the great equalizer. Still, time feels different when you’re waiting in traffic or waiting for medical test results. Or even as another new year approaches and we face past regrets and the promise of doing better.
Perhaps time’s value has more to do with the control we think we have over it. This reminds me of that Yiddish proverb, “We plan, and God laughs.” Or a John Lennon lyric: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Or what my husband wrote as a much younger man: “Nothing is sadder than the memory of happiness.” Time surprises us over and over by running out. The present rarely seems enough until later.
A few weeks ago, I asked Karen if she remembers our walk home that December night in 1985. Of course she does. We disagree over whose party we were leaving — Sean Sinette’s, I’m sure of it — and Karen reminds me how we stopped to admire the orange glow of the streetlights in the falling snow. We had no idea at 16 that this moment is one we’d still be talking about all of these years later.
One time researcher warned, “In a society like ours, the go-to answer is make more money, buy more stuff. What people actually need is more time.” This is the plot of a sci-fi film “In Time,” set in a future where money has been replaced by time as the most sought-after commodity, a premise not so far removed from reality. Economists tell us that when anything is in demand its value goes up. With something as precious as time, we perceive it to be scarcer than it is. Just one of the reasons I often awaken at 3 a.m. and lie there dwelling on my to-do list.
Most women I know are so over-booked that we no longer say, “too busy.” We learn to fit in what me must. I manage my life with a wall calendar on the side of my fridge, a to-do list in my pocket, and a digital work schedule on my computer. Some weeks I simply can’t keep up. Writing these words seems like admitting defeat.
In 2022, I will turn 54 years old. I realize the privilege it is to simply opt to do less. It’s no surprise that a recent survey showed that people who could choose between work or play were older, wealthier and tended to be married with children. Researchers determined that those of us who feel the most overworked often do it to ourselves. Bottom line: Do less and you won’t be overwhelmed. That’s easier said than done.
When you’re 6 years old the days are so long you can barely fill them. At 16 you can’t wait to be old enough to do what you want. At 26 to around 56 time is a yoke around your neck, tightened by each added responsibility. At 66 to 76 you relax a bit, except to fit in all the appointments it takes to keep you alive. At 86 the days are so long you can barely fill them, but you’ve learned not to try.