Time and the Art of Living
[Editor’s note: Time and the Art of Living was originally published in 1982, and has been in my life for over two decades. In that time I have purchased perhaps a dozen copies as gifts for family and friends. I am eternally grateful to Robert Grudin for his kind permission to reprint some of the many gems in this most remarkable book for all ages, for all time. What follows are the Preface and selections from each of the chapters in the book.]
Time is everywhere, yet eludes us. Time is so bound up in our universe and ourselves that it resists our efforts to isolate and define it. Time haunts our experience like some invisible spirit of things, some irretrievable truth. And when we try to manage our own time, setting new goals, cleaning and rearranging the little houses of our days, time gently mocks us—not so much because we lack wit as because time operates on a deeper psychological level than conscious effort can normally reach. This book does not attempt to isolate or organize time. Instead it attempts, on the broadest possible scale, to do justice to time’s rooted coherence in nature. My premise, which is quite traditional, is that the acceptance and appreciation of nature are the only channels to its elusive bounty, the only valid foundations of boldness and achievement. My approach has two corollaries, which together explain the unusual format of this book. First, since time refused to sit still for my portrait, I have written instead a kind of moving picture, a series of statements and reflections which readers may follow at their own pace. Rather than leading readers to preordained conclusions, I wish to make them stop and think. Rather than pretending to consistency and connectedness, I wish to set off an autonomous interplay of comparisons and contrasts. The blank spaces between my writings are as important as the writings themselves. Second, since time operates most dramatically on our dearest values and concerns, I have been unable to avoid making statements about these matters; so that what began as an objective discourse on time has ended up as a personal philosophy of life. For this unavoidable excess I take full responsibility, trusting that readers will sort out what is valuable from what is not, and that those who find nothing of value will forgive and forget.
A Prospect of Time
In a railroad car at nightfall, when the natural light outside has diminished until it is even with the artificial light inside, the passenger facing forward sees in his window two images at once: the dim landscape rushing toward him out of a pit of darkness, and the interior of the car, reflected with its more or less motionless occupants. At this hour most passengers unconsciously give allegiance to one of these two polarities of vision; and the individual momentarily aware of both may be struck by the profound, almost tragic duality between outer and inner worlds, between the rush of experience and the immobility of awareness. The uneasy contrast implied by this image is to my mind one of the special marks of our condition, one of the tragic divorces between our lonely humanity and the pulse of nature.
Fast drivers can see no further than slow drivers, but they must look further down the road to time their reactions safely. Similarly, people with great projects afoot habitually look further and more clearly into the future than people who are mired in day-to-day concerns. These former control the future because by necessity they must project themselves into it; and the upshot is that, like ambitious settlers, they stake out larger plots and homesteads of time than the rest of us. They do not easily grow sad or old; they are seldom intimidated by the alarms and confusions of the present because they have something greater of their own, some sense of their large and coherent motion in time, to compare the present with.
Psychologically time is seldom homogeneous but rather is as full of shapes as space. Like the stress lines in metal or the patterns of ocean currents, these shapes become visible only when subjected to certain forms of analysis, but are invaluable in determining the nature of the thing studied. For example, time as we know it generally divides itself into threes. Every definite period, from an hour’s wait in an airport to a year’s sojourn abroad, resolves itself into beginning, middle, and end—natural divisions of radically distinct character. Time runs slower at the beginning, faster at the end of a period; for we tend to conceive of periods in terms of time remaining rather than time elapsed, and minutes near the end of a period constitute a greater percentage of remaining time than minutes near the beginning. Time at the beginnings and ends of periods is generally fragmented. We sit down to read for two hours and spend the first few minutes arranging ourselves in our chairs, stationing our lamps and generally trying to free our minds from the immediate past and burrow them into present concentration. A hundred-odd minutes later our concentration begins to flag. We look at our watches more frequently, stretch stiff muscles, and deal with the anticipation or anxiety which inheres in the activity to come. It is at the center of the period, distinct from these two extremes but protected by them, that the heart of the activity and the real value of the involvement lie. Two obvious corollaries spring from these principles: (1) In planning ahead we should remember that usable time is at best 80 to 85 percent of total time. (2) Long unbroken periods contain more usable time than do short periods totaling the same length.
In old magazines and newspapers we find a number of uncomfortably revealing things: the aged as young, the dead as living, forgotten people as celebrities, an array of our own barbarous and long-discarded fads and postures, and worst, visible only in this removed perspective, our own sickening pretensions to meaning and permanence.
Bondage in Time
We starve, neglect, insult, and variously abuse our memories, treating them more like filing cabinets, to store and regurgitate the minor data we need from day to day, than like living and creative elements of identity. We blink dumbly at the other powers of memory—its haunting retentiveness, its impish selectivity, its ability to barrage us with unnecessary information or to desert us completely in hours of need, its profound intercourse with the unconscious—without trying to comprehend or benefit from these functions. This uneasy relationship with a rich and voluminous intellectual resource is a sign of our distance from ourselves, and more particularly of our failure to recognize our own extensions in time. Our memories take their revenge for this lack of respect and cultivation with slowdowns, walkouts, bitter satires, and outrageous midnight rallies.
We commonly conceive of time as something external to ourselves. Modern physics has established time and space as parts of the same continuum and thus by implication integrated time into the heart of all things perceived; but modern language, common sense, and humanistic inquiry lag far behind. We still speak and think in clichés which suggest that time is outside of us, something which “passes,” something we can “spend,” “serve,” or “kill”; something which, though admittedly a part of the natural order, runs a course of its own. While natural science has attained a temporal understanding which is not only realistic but strangely beautiful and evocative, our own more general awareness of time has changed little since the days when Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition. Our world of time is as flat and exclusive as some medieval map.
Lovers who plod mechanically through a series of unsuccessful relationships are good examples of the failure to understand the dimensionality of time. At the beginning of each affair or marriage they forget what sickened them about the last; in the middle they forget what brought them into it; and at the end they fail to perceive the causal relationship between their initial desire, their half-hearted participation, and their inevitable failure. Like adding machines they return faithfully to zero after each sum and are ready for the next transaction. People who chronically fail to complete projects are subject to similarly frustrating revolutions of will. This is not to say that an awareness of our emotional cyclicality will be a sure cure for our characteristic problems. But it is certainly a first step—in fact the only first step. Unconscious enslavement is enslavement doubled.
I own an Omega wristwatch which I bought nine years ago at Heathrow Airport and which has since then produced for me, with reasonable fidelity to nature, about 700 million ticks and tocks. Almost every day, winding it, I am reminded that another day has run out, that I am one day farther down the line. Sometimes I glance too at the hand and wrist beneath the watch, which, with their growing assortment of scars, lines, and shadows, are also accurate time-keepers, suggesting not daily minutiae but rather my definite position between the entrance and exit of life. Locating myself in the larger picture, I momentarily leave the thicket of daily concerns and sense a more urgent pulse (days ticking like seconds, ages passing like hours) which animates my life. If some eccentric had his watch dismantled and a tiny death’s head etched upon the face, I would understand and sympathize.
Past, Present, and Future
In the late 1970’s, U.S. society was gripped by an epidemic desire to discover its “roots,” and millions of people suddenly began to consult genealogies, etymologies, and chronicles in efforts to uncover their family backgrounds. This movement, for all its gross faddishness, showed signs of having significant social and psychological causes. Perhaps people saw in “roots” a chance to reestablish a forgotten element of identity; and society, grown fat and fatuous on the present, finally sensed the connection between its disregard for the past and its own haunted loneliness.
How will we, five or ten or twenty years hence, look back on present time? Most probably, with envy and regret. We will envy the younger self who could, relatively speaking, do so much; and we will regret that it did not do more. We will wonder why, given youth and health and broad reaches of time, we learned so little, loved so little, risked so little; how so much time could have drained so immemorially down the sink of routine and distraction. Yet these regrets, however specifically realistic they are, ignore the broader continuity, which dictates that the confines of a single moment can hold all the dimensions and potentialities of time, and that the crucial decisions and opportunities are always before us, no less now than in the past, no less in the future than now.
The future is like a friendly stranger, polite and patient, forever trying to get acquainted with us, forever being rebuffed. If we did simple exercises for thirty minutes a day, we would greatly improve our strength, health, beauty, and life expectancy. If we studied for one hour a day, we could relatively soon learn languages, master wide knowledge, and develop new professions. If we sensibly invested $1 a day, we would in thirty years control substantial wealth. If we did ourselves the almost absurdly simple honor of planning our free time, we would enlarge ourselves into a whole new dimension of freedom. Yet we often fail to do any of these things, so great is our contempt of the future, so massive our ignorance of ourselves. It would be for most of us a highly disagreeable experience to meet, in the flesh, our future selves. Not just for the visual shock of seeing our own spirits animating bent limbs, watery eyes, and sagging jowls; but for the moral shock of meeting individuals whom we have daily and disgracefully wronged.
Among the many good reasons for making plans is the fact that the future can be enjoyed as fully as the present or the past. But most of what we enjoy, we enjoy specifically. A contemplated week in Paris, pleasant as a generalized concept, becomes much more pleasant when we know that it will include a visit to the Sainte-Chapelle, afternoons at the Louvre and Cluny, a splurge, a stroll on the Ile St. Louis, an evening at the Opera preceded by cocktails at the café of the same name and followed by onion soup near the old site of Les Halles, a morning Metro-ride to the Jardin des Plantes or the Vincennes Zoo. In this way the projected days become a delightful union of the real and the ideal; and the future, huge yet as transparent and inconsequential as vacant sky, takes on dozens of meaningful shapes. People suspect that planning will shackle them; but, with moderation, this is almost never the case. If you make plans, you may always diverge from them—committing what is itself a pleasant act of freedom. If you do not make plans, you leave the future an empty field of chance, useless to the present, forfeit to your own unpredictable moods. You insult time, and it turns away from you a face that could have been full of solace. And you imply to yourself that the two other dimensions of time, past and present, mean less to you than they might or should.
Identity, Love, and Time
A man of twenty, I peek stealthily into the window of the tiny study, in Carmel Valley, California, where my older self sits writing this book. I shudder to see as reality some of the things I have feared: the wrinkles, the baldness, the ingrained mannerisms; I console myself that the figure at the desk has not grown fat, and that he is writing. I glance through other windows, wondering in spite of myself at the lack of furniture and other possessions (so old and yet so poor!); I gaze uncomprehendingly at the rosy-cheeked child, the graceful wife. I follow the writer through a few of his days, remarking dismally at their regularity, mundaneness, domesticity, lack of risk. “Is that all there is?” I ask. I yearn to rap on the window, to ask him what provoked this rejection of freedom, this submission to desolate routine. What puzzles me most of all is his appearance of being, despite his extreme age and manifest impoverishment of experience, so much happier than I have ever been.
Just as one sends a letter from place to place, one may send, to one’s self or others, letters through time. Photographs, mementos, and journal entries are letters we send into the future; and by writing or speaking about events gone by we can communicate to some extent with the past. To do this regularly and intelligently is to expand our being in time.
No psychological message is so open to question as that which tells us that we have nothing left to do or to give.
The Politics of Time
Sometimes we notice in an old group photograph the single face of some unknown person who looks directly into our souls, suggesting some timeless form of awareness, solitary and penetrating. The intelligent student of past events undergoes a similar experience, perceiving in crowds of extraneous phenomena the solitary face of humanity: the vestige of enduring human truth which connects one age to another, one place to another, and thus saves the study of history from what would otherwise be a world of barren mechanism and formless change. More valuable yet and far rarer is the ability to perceive this face as it lies lonely and hidden in the events of one’s own time.
People instinctively regard their good luck as something they have deserved and their bad luck as something they have not. In so doing they misconceive the nature of luck and run afoul of it. Luck has nothing at all to do with the past. It is a whisper from the future, to be enjoyed only by those who cherish the futurity within themselves.
Morality in Time
Bold people can only with great effort be patient and must admonish themselves to be merciful. But timid people, though they may pride themselves on their patience and mercy, have not the slightest idea what either word means.
The reason so many promises are not kept is the same as the reason they are made in the first place.
By nature we forgive and forget a whole zoo of petty injuries; but we seldom forget, and have trouble forgiving, being lied to. In a curious sense, an injury is once, a lie forever.
Plans made swiftly and intuitively are likely to have flaws. Plans made carefully and comprehensively are sure to.
For a while now I have kept, along with our more traditional timepieces, a digital watch which shows hour, minutes, and seconds in illuminated Arabic numerals. Such watches, my wife remarks, give their wearers a wholly different idea of time. Looking at them we see a particular time, divorced from its context in the broader picture of the day. The round faces of the older watches and clocks speak to us not only of the present but also of the past and the future—when we woke, when we will work or play or rest, where we have been, where we wish to be or must be. Intricately and persistently they remind us of our existence in a continuum, which includes not only the social and natural world but also our own extending identity in time. The new watches, like many other modern and businesslike things, ignore such frivolities, demarcating only that particular island of time on which we happen to be stranded.
Growth and Age
As we grow older, our youth silently expands in time, while old age contracts. At twenty-two, having graduated from college, I considered my youth at an end, forgetting that I had come to a similar conclusion on leaving high school at eighteen. Now in my forties, I consider my life up to age thirty-three a kind of twilight adolescence, thirty-three through thirty-six as Lehrjahre, and thirty-seven on as young manhood. Old age, which once for me included the late thirties, has now accordingly scuttled back into the underbrush beyond age sixty-five. I expect that this process will continue, at least in a kind of parabolic curve, through my whole life. At fifty I will probably look back at forty, with indulgence born perhaps of envy, as unpracticed and supple greenness. I and others like me live in a kind of eternal middle age, and no wonder; for no matter where we are in age, we are always in the middle of time, and must weigh our future equally with our past.
Argue for what you believe to be true, but never expect to win an important point with words alone.
Successful people generally have more errors to their credit, and often bigger ones, than unsuccessful people. They view these in the same way that scientists view failed experiments: not as moral setbacks but as the necessary concomitants of discovery. While plodders see failure as a demon, achievers see it more as a void, oppressive perhaps but not intimidating, and capable of redemption by the first success that comes along. They know, however, that success, no matter how much praised or how well rewarded, will open up new challenges, new risks of failure.
The years forget our errors and forgive our sins, but they punish our inaction with living death.
Time and Art
Avoid worrying about whether what you write will be worth reading. Instead ask whether it is worth writing; and, if so, how it may best be written. Avoid worrying about whether what you write will be original. When originality occurs at all (which is rare), it occurs as a by-product of conviction.
Laughable error and profound discovery are born of the same freedom.
Natural and Unnatural Time
Those who labor for bread or money alone are condemned to their reward.
One way of thinking about time’s dimensionality is through comparisons like that between a pebble (small spatially but large temporally) and a cloud (large spatially but small temporally). With this concept in mind, we may look at a more difficult issue: the comparative spatial and temporal dimensionality of human experience. We may compare, for example, the human being with the dimensions of the space-time continuum itself. By current reckoning, the universe has a radius of 20 billion light-years (a light-year is about 6 trillion miles) and consequently a known age of 20 billion years. Divide your approximate height into the radius of the universe. Then divide your age into the age of the universe. No matter what your height and age, you will find that you are immensely larger in time than you are in space. If your size in time were as small as your size in space, you would live less than one-millionth of a second. If your size in space were as large as your size in time, you would need a microscope to examine the solar system. Pygmies in space, we are bumbling giants in time.