Mansions of time

A book that has meant a lot to me over the years is called Time and the Art of Living, by Robert Grudin (Harper & Row, 1982).

It explores all the ways in which we perceive (and misperceive) time and our place in it, in prose that is well-reasoned, thoughtful and at times even poetic.

One of my favorite phrases Grudin uses is “mansions of time.” Here is the entire paragraph for context (emphasis added):

Each of us occupies two temporal modalities of being: one which exists in the present and one which stretches through time to our lives’ limits. While the former constantly demands our attention, it is upon the latter that every precept of behavior and hope of happiness is based. Our broader selves are our better selves, and our present attitude toward them is optimally one of attentiveness and humility. Conspicuously admirable people seem to inhabit these broader selves and strike us as living in mansions of time; the rest of us, who give up projects in a day’s despair, renounce friendships in anger, follow fads and read magazines as oracles, are pent up in temporal hovels. Characteristically anxious or distracted, we inhabit tiny fractions of our full being; and like small patrols, isolated from the main army and ambushed, we respond weakly and are overcome by shocks of experience. Self-confidence, on the other hand, often consists merely of the ability to connect our fragmentary present with our wholeness in time, the past and future which give it meaning and importance.

I don’t know that I would claim the label of conspicuously admirable for myself, but I love the idea of occupying a mansion, and feel that I do with my time. I limit my activities to those that matter to and interest me most, so my days are not filled with onerous or routine obligations or mindless distractions (such as watching television). I have wide-open spaces in my calendar every day, but I am seldom idle. I always have plenty of time to take care of my house and my dogs, socialize with my friends, exercise, cook, blog, read, correspond, and even sleep. It’s true that I don’t have kids, I don’t have hobbies that take me out of the house, I don’t play or watch sports, I don’t volunteer, I’m not a joiner in groups and causes. I am an introvert and my batteries recharge when I am alone, so I make sure I have time for that in addition to whatever else I have to fit into my days (including a full-time job).

Image from The Days Are Just Packed, a Calvin & Hobbes Collection by Bill Watterson
(click image to enlarge)

Some people I know seem to almost make a fetish of being (or at least appearing to be) busy all the time. If you see them on the street and ask them how they’ve been, they sigh and say “oh gawd, so busy,” but then they have nothing to talk about after that regarding their recent activities. Others I never see on the street because they really are busy, their days jammed with work, chores, child care, their kids’ activities, community involvement, friends, family, travel, and so on. Trying to get together with them is like getting an audience with the Pope. The idea of spending a quiet evening by themselves or with their families at home doing nothing more than listening to music or reading a magazine or talking to each other is simply laughable–how would they ever fit that in? And while we’re at it, how boring would that be?

But maybe the real question in their minds is, why would anyone choose to be idle, with no specific activities scheduled or planned? There’s no virtue in deliberately taking downtime, especially by oneself. Better to be constantly scrambling from one obligation or appointment to the next, never quite fully present wherever one is because one is always thinking of the next place one must be, than to be caught with nothing to do (as opposed to “something to do,” which I think by definition involves keeping some sort of commitment to or agreement with other people).

Even people who are on vacation often pack the schedule with activities lest anyone (especially the children) get bored. One parent I know scheduled a recent day for her 4-year-old that included a four-hour day camp in the morning, going out to lunch, a movie and a swimming lesson in the afternoon, and a t-ball game in the evening. I can’t recall ever having so many activities in a row on one day when I was a kid. Another parent of teenagers recently emailed me her two kids’ summer schedules, which was a long list of camps, temporary jobs, club activities, fairs, and the like. Nearly every single day of their summer “vacation” has been scheduled months in advance. There is no time for relaxing, daydreaming or cloud busting.

Being busy can be like a drug–the busier you are, the more virtuous you might perceive yourself to be, and the more necessary you feel when everybody in your life is counting on you to be here or there and do this or that all the time. That validation from yourself and others can become a stimulant without which you can’t function and from which you can’t escape. Any addiction becomes a prison, though, and the cell only gets smaller.

Protect your time. It is your life. ~ Oprah Winfrey

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One thought on “Mansions of time

  1. Pingback: Odds and ends | Shaw Pro Photo

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