What do we celebrate when we greet each other Happy New Year? In the language of modern business at least, it is that in the project of Showing Up—of keeping on and staying alive—you and I have made it. Congratulations.
Time ambles on, and while some have “stepped out of life’s procession” (including, notably, some music icons), here we are. We celebrate the fact that though we are not celebrities, at least we’re in the show, if not to be onstage, at least to be spectators of whatever the running story is. “Even a live dog,” the author of Ecclesiastes says, “is better off than a dead lion,” which is to say show up, keep on keeping on, and you’ll be rewarded for it, though not to say that the departed are less meritorious. I love this picture and this enterprise of showing up because it seems to be one of the few places not yet tainted by the disease of You Don’t Matter If You Have Nothing to Show for It. “Blessed are those who show up and stay on” would probably make it into the Beatitudes. “For those who allow time’s constancy and change to shape them and reveal ultimate reality to them will be delivered from the Cult of Hecticness and Oppressive Comparison.” Just show up, whether in your Sunday best or in your tattered, time-worn worst.
Happy New Year is always a milestone. In rolls another year, and for some reason it evokes particular reflection that is not normally occasioned by the turn of another month, or a quarter, or even a decade.
I’ve been thinking about time as that—a mystery and a gift. Time as gift seems easy enough; as mystery, it’s quite hard to describe. We all have the same number of seconds per minute, the time-management consultants would tell us, whether we tell time by the clock, the number of journals we’ve filled, the heartbeats or paces registered in our smartwatches, the cups of coffee we’ve consumed, or even the number of jobs we’ve let go of or were let go from. Or opportunities lost. The funny thing about time is that unlike money, your favorite drink, or your data credit, you don’t save it by not using it.
Hecticness is understandable. After all, as Oliver Burkeman writes, “Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans, yet almost no time at all to put them into practice.” And let’s not for a moment presume that our problem is just quantity; it’s also quality. “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand—that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us,” says Annie Dillard.
And that is exactly one of time’s mysteries. We dwell in it, and the we part is itself teeming with mystery enough to fill volumes.
It’s borrowed time (there goes the capitalism parallel again), the operative word being borrowed. From whom? And on what terms? You get different answers. Some say from chance, from the Force, from the universe, from evolution, from the future generation. From God.
Time changes us. Or at least reveals that we are not really as constant, consistent, or in control as we think we are. If you’re into modern philosophers, you might have come across one of those French ones who said that the principal question in life ought to be “Why not commit suicide?” In your teenage angst you may have agreed, and maybe even published your agreement with a poem, or a tattoo. Now, perhaps singing a lullaby to a six-month-old baby in your arms, you might say, what nonsense!
Time as mysterious. You get the idea.
I’ve come to realize that whenever I see time as a minor gift of the bigger gift of eternity, it’s easier to wean myself away from the idea that the main thing about time is how to manage it. For whoever bothers about managing a gift? As Frederick Buechner writes,
The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
Happy New Year. Keep showing up, and enjoy the gift.
Remember, my dear, to unfurrow your brow at least more
than half the time, that for all the liberties we fight for
in this world that we insist ought to be just, we should not
forget the right to refuse the oppressive accusation of anxiety.
Let the doggone proverbial other shoe drop wherever it may,
but for heaven’s sake let us not hinder the peace that passes
understanding from descending like a deluge where it will.
Remember, my dear, the children so carefree they might as
well be living in another world. Remember how we were
children once, more in touch with our preciousness and yet
never hounded by the compulsion, like a dictator, to retain the
status by our performances and endless, vicious, unspoken
comparisons. Who knows when we will become children again?
Remember that vengeance is not ours, and yet still that
those who succeed in injustice will not persist, and those who
persist in it will not succeed. That though we work our
butts off precariously toeing the line between drudgery and
insanity, somewhere beyond the horizon is a home cozier
than even a hobbit’s in the Shire.
Somewhere farther than we know (but for all we know,
in a sense closer than our own heartbeats), there is a rest
beneath the rest.
Remember, my dear, that at the center of the universe,
no matter how hidden it may be—obscured by our unholy
strivings or numbed by our cherished scars—is a face
acquainted with our troubles, but wearing not a frown
nor a smirk but a smile.
(March 2016, pace Frederick Buechner, Tim Keller, & Loren Eisely)
What will it take today to jolt you from
The slumber of living on groggy autopilot?
A near miss, a close call, a double take?
The scent of people’s perfumes and,
At rare moments, of people themselves
As you huddle with them in the elevator?
The fact that being “only human”
Is really as much a confession as an alibi?
The sight of a teabag slowly suffused
With hot water like a sinking continent?
A hopeful past? A memorable future?
The sweet unplaced nostalgia in
The smell of a newly sharpened pencil?
The thought of your own life and the mortality
That sticks with it like wet pages?
Or, like Mr. Buechner, the surprise of
Finding yourself praying
But not knowing what you were asking?