Time is the mechanism through which life finds meaning. Everybody and everything has a limited slice of the temporal plane. With time being relative, our own slice of it tends to be very much shorter than we might like. Paradoxically enough, it is our inevitable death that gives us reason to live in the first place.
A common fantasy of youth, and of those without and appropriate grasp on their own purpose for living, is to live forever. It’s a relatable dream to not have to worry about the ravages of old age and to know that everything will work out simply because you’ll have a literal eternity to get things right.
There’s a problem with relying on an abundance of time to get things done – too much time easily cultivates a lazy attitude. If you’ve got forever to figure it out then there’s no push to even start anything, let alone get it done.
Have you ever crammed for a test? Probably. Most of us have. You know you have an exam coming up, but it’s weeks away, plus you’ve been to every class this semester, so you’ll be fine.
So you spend your spare time relaxing from all the regular stresses of being a student by having beers with friends, hitting the gym, and finishing the book that’s overdue at the library. On top of that you have to maintain a job, do laundry, cook your meals… eternity sounds like a more appealing timeframe than the zero free time you currently experience.
No problem, I’ll be ready for the…. wait, what day is it? The test is in two days??!? Oh no. Oh noooo.
Suddenly you have a renewed motivation; a conviction that you will review and memorize every last bit of information you’ll need to ace this exam. Not only that, but you’ve learned an important life lesson: time goes by quickly. You didn’t watch the pot and now it’s boiling over. You swear, absolutely and completely, that you’ll never do this again. You promise yourself that next time you’ll study every single day.
No you won’t.
The urgency of being a few steps before the finish line brings a certain clarity to the underprepared, the technical term for it is “panic.” It’s easy to be seduced by the messages of a panicked mind and convince yourself that you’ve learned your lesson and will never repeat this mistake. Let’s take a moment to thank our sponsor for this event: this convincing belief is brought to you by time. Or, rather, by being almost out of time.
Inevitably, after cramming for enough tests, the toil of earning a degree will come to a close and you get to enjoy the exquisite pleasure of handing in your last exam of the program. I remember mine – it was a morning exam and my classmate brought in a flask which was shared with the teacher. After everyone was finished we all went to the pub for a few pints, teacher included. He even prank called one of our colleagues that wasn’t at the pub with us and told him his exam was missing a page and he was going to fail.
That conversation ended with “nah, I’m just kidding. Come to the King’s Head for a drink with us!” It was a day of widespread relief.
The pressure that a looming deadline puts on us is stressful but few things are quite as useful. When any endeavor is approached with a clear understanding of the constraints in which we must operate it helps to define how and when to execute the steps towards completion and success. As Leonard Bernstein put it, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
That philosophy, whether conscious of it or not, was a foundation upon which the Apollo space program found such great success. Organization and planning is something that NASA does well, but with the pressure of trying to get to the moon first to keep the Soviets from weaponizing space, each tick of the clock was a step closer to a total loss of the freedom and security we had come to enjoy as a nation. Not only did they succeed, but this conflicting pressure between nations spawned some of the biggest technological leaps we’ve ever seen in our collective history.
Our lives are filled with first and last experiences. Firsts are so powerful that they have been cliché’d through and through – our first kiss, our first apartment, our first time getting punched in the face.
That last one isn’t as desirable as the other two, but it sure leaves a bold imprint in the memory banks.
Lasts can be even more powerful, but they can, and usually do, slip by unnoticed. One mention of this that I’ve seen is that there was a time in your life that your parents picked you up, held you, then put you down, never to be picked up again. This is significant, but it’s very easy to never even notice this fact.
Regret is one of the most devastating emotions that we experience and we’ve all had our doses of it. I was in college when I kept turning down offers to join my parents for visits to my uncle’s place across the city.
Then one day I got a phone call – Bob had a massive heart attack and was in an induced coma in the hospital. It was likely he would never be conscious again and his heart was in its literal death throes. I went to visit him while he was there, but I never saw him awake again. He was only sixty eight years old and I thought I had more time.
I have many memories of him growing up, but I can’t be sure when the last time was that I got to visit and interact with him. It would have seemed an innocuous event but it contained the last time I would hear his voice, the last time I looked into his eyes; the last time in my entire life that I would know him as more than a memory.
This was a very difficult lesson in taking things for granted. Some lessons have to be learned the hard way, and this one was driven deep into my heart. It has brought me an awareness that I carry to this day, but even now I live with what I might call “running regrets.”
I don’t have any kids of my own yet, but I hope to one day. That means, with any luck, there will be a last day that I am a single man, or a last day that I can fall asleep and not worry about some younger version of me getting home safely. In the mean time I have nieces and nephews and this is where the running regrets come in.
Having these children of my siblings around has shown me how fast kids really do grow up, and while I spent a lot of time with them in years past, the more recent years have had fewer visits. Before I know it they won’t be kids any more, and I won’t be giving my ten year old nephew rides on my shoulders. There are always reasons we are too busy for certain things in our schedule and my efforts in maintaining this blog among many other personal endeavours have kept me occupied.
But someday soon will be the last day that I visit my nieces and nephews as children and start our relationship as peers. That day is soon as the oldest is already fifteen years old. I am achingly aware of this, but sometimes it’s not quite enough to get out the door and go see them.
As you can see, I am aware that I may be growing regrets in my garden with each passing day that I don’t get in touch or plan a get-together. This is why I call it a “running” regret – it’s in process right now and I am aware of it.
This does bring something positive with it: they are on my mind a lot. I mean, they would be anyway, but the knowledge that they’re growing out of childhood so quickly ensures that I don’t let them lapse from awareness.
The real emotion behind the “running regret” is guilt, and the Bright Side to carrying guilt is that I have an opportunity to learn more about it. For example, I have learned that there is a catch with guilt, in that I tend to shy away from doing something once I feel guilty about it. I believe it’s tied in to my long-running habit of avoiding responsibility. It’s a vicious cycle where my guilt feeds avoidance and avoidance deepens the problem leading to more guilt.
These are not fun emotional states to be in, but I would not know about them had I not made mistakes in the first place. You can never really know how to live well until you’ve done it poorly first. Mistakes and self-forgiveness is where gratitude blooms and we all have plenty enough mistakes on our list, with a little compassion towards ourselves we can really start to grow something useful.
Although we will have many, many last moments in our lives we will rarely ever know when exactly they are taking place. That’s not a bad thing because if spend all your time watching and waiting for them to happen you’ll suck all the joy out of being there in the first place. Everything comes and goes and it’s our great blessing to be able to say goodbye to a person, a place, a stage in our lives.
So here’s to our last day of school, our last first kiss, our last day of poverty, our last hours at a life-sucking job, and our last breath of air in the living world. May we be lucky enough to lose a million gifts in this wonderful life. The only other option is to stay so guarded that you never get to have them in the first place.
Keep on the Bright Side, my friends, and be sure to risk losing everything you think you want so that you can find everything you truly need.