For thousands of years we measured its passage by the seasons, the phases of the moon. Then, the tolling of church bells and large tower clocks separated our days into smaller portions. For time itself has no divisions to mark its passing. There is never a thunderstorm to announce the beginning of a new month or year. As our science grew more sophisticated, so did our measure of time. Mechanical clocks have been replaced in large part by quartz, and now we have developed an atomic clock based on the rate of decay of a radioactive substance. What’s more amazing, all of us have access to the beating of this timepiece through the use of a radio wave controlled device small enough to wear on our wrists which constantly synchronizes with the nuclear timepiece in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
Both at work and at home, I’m surrounded by various time keeping devices on the wall, my computer screen, my wrist. The radio and television keep announcing the time. Not to mention my Palm Pilot with its calendar and ‘to-do’ lists, my office appointment sheet divided into 15-minute segments, the daily schedule on the wall of my lab – all collaborating to create time pressure, not just in my life, but also in the lives of nearly everyone I know.
We all have the same amount of time in any given hour, month or year. Time is the great democratic leveler. No matter what you do, you can’t save it, store it, give it away. Our perception of time may (and usually does) change depending on what we are doing and how old we are. Remember when several years passed between Christmas and the coming of your fourth birthday? And how long fifteen minutes lasted when taking an oral exam in graduate school?
We as creatures have evolved over untold years to the circadian rhythms of our bodies, the pull of the tides by the moon, the passing of fall leaves into winter snows. It is only in very recent years that we have made time into a tyrant in our lives. I don’t know which is sadder – our over scheduled kids, running from school to soccer practice, music lessons to scout meetings, or the harried parents juggling their schedules to accommodate those of their kids, and somehow losing something very vital in the transaction – the ability to relate to each other, to listen in quiet, to take time to reflect on what is happening in life rather than rushing through to the next event. I remember a scene at the Grand Canyon where a family pulled up next to us at a spectacular look-out point. The father jumped out, lined his wife and kids up against the rail for a couple of quick photos, than hurried everyone back into the van so they could reach the next point on their printed itinerary. When one of the boys protested that he wanted to stay longer, the father yelled at him, “Shut up, Billy. You can look at the pictures when we get back home.”
It’s hard to live in our society and not feel time pressured, especially if you live in a big city. The pace of country life is a bit slower, but even that is being corrupted by the incursion of mega-stores, the ubiquitous television, and the sprawling superhighways. For each of us, the Present is a point just passed. How much attention we pay determines the meaning of that forever irrecoverable moment. For the importance in life is not how many breaths we take, but how many moments take our breath away.