The secret to having enough time, and why it matters
“If there is meaning in the past and in the imagined future, it is captured in the moment. When you have all the time in the world, you can spend it, not on going somewhere, but on being where you are.”
This quote comes from Indigenous author and Ecology Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. In this particular chapter, she is seeking shelter in a forest from a winter rainstorm, and her observations of the forest occupants lead her to ponder the subjective nature of time. She questions how the meaning of a second or a minute or a year can tell us anything when such measurements are felt so profoundly differently by a gnat whose life only spans 7 days, or the cedar tree that protects her who can live for as long as 300 years, or the river flowing in the nearby creek that has seen everything, or the rocks she stumbles across that exist in virtual perpetuity.
“It’s what happens that matters,” she asserts. And lies back under the shelter of a log, listening to the rain.
“If there is meaning in the past and in the imagined future, it is captured in the moment.”
I love this sentiment. It echoes the writing of Eckhart Tolle, whom I’ve touched upon before, for his concise description of why being present is so critical to happiness. For Tolle, there is no other way to be. The past and the future don’t exist. The only thing that ever exists is the now.
Kimmerer acknowledges the significance of the past and ‘imagined future’, but similarly proposes that the only way to actually grasp their impact is through the present moment. We can only catch and hold onto meaning, the stuff that makes life worth living, through whatever we are doing and feeling and thinking right now. That’s the only doorway, and it is both ever present and always fleeting.
But to be frank and as you may well know, living in the now takes a lot of practice. It takes work. We’re not taught how to do it; actually, a lot of the time we’re taught the opposite. We’re taught to tell time and make plans and follow a schedule, and in time we come to understand why such tools are important. Society wouldn’t be able to function as it is without them. But then, when we are ruled by time we trade the purpose of it for its maintenance.
So there has to be a balance between cultivating meaning and capturing it, between visiting the past and future and living in the present. And I think part of that balance arises from a perspective shift.
“When you have all the time in the world, you can spend it, not on going somewhere, but on being where you are.”
To this I would add, and being where you are is the way to get where you’re going. It is through being where we are that we move, that we grow, that we make change. Living in the past and the future is important insomuch as it helps us move in the present.
Most importantly, I think that being where you are enables you to have all the time in the world, because of the slippery nature of moments. Moments are always and never, here and then gone, perpetual and transitory. When we are really in the moment, we aren’t thinking about time, and therefore it feels like we have all the time in the world. It is only when we start counting our lives in time that we recognize its finiteness.
That’s not to say that living in the moment is delusion; it’s just that when we’re fully present and capturing meaning, as Kimmerer states, we have all the time we need. It’s enough. We rob ourselves of time when we start measuring it.
“Listening to rain, time disappears. If time is measure by the period between events, alder drip time is different from maple drip. This forest is textured with different kinds of time, as the surface of the pool is dimpled with different kinds of rain. Fir needles fall with the high-frequency hiss of rain, branches fall with the bloink of big drops, and trees fall with a rare but thunderous thud. Rare, unless you measure time like a river. And we think of it as simply time, as if it were one thing, as if we understood it. Maybe there is no such thing as time; there are only moments, each with its own story.”
“If time is measured by the period between events,” perhaps a better way to think about time for us humans is to think of it as a function of whatever brings us meaning. To measure it in our own actions, to understand it in relation to our own individual goals or purpose or things that bring us joy. Not only might that be more productive and meaningful, it just might free us from the constraints we impose upon ourselves when we forfeit the present to live on a clock.
“It’s what happens that matters.”