An acquaintance of mine once said in passing, “I am learning to make friends with time.” Years later, this thought still echoes in me. What a concept, to befriend time! So many of us feel we’re in a constant wrestle with time, and feel that we’re losing. As if time has us pinned in a permanent half-Nelson.
Are there fresh ways to think about time? I think so.
- It’s a good thing time passes. If time stayed still, I would be forever stuck in Mrs. Strobel’s 5th-grade math class, watching the clock in agony. Fortunately, time moves, or we move through time. Things aren’t static.
- Our relationship with time isn’t fixed. I know financially secure people who always seem frazzled and rushed. I know working people who know how to kick back. And the other way around. So what’s true? Our experience of time is shaped by things as concrete as class and economics and as fluid as spirit or attitude.
- Time is elastic. When my day feels jammed but I manage to slow down or take a break anyway, it seems like I create time. Even though I’m “spending” time that I supposedly don’t have, I’m somehow also gaining or extending time just by claiming it for myself.
A man who worked with me on stress management said that his neighbor once asked him why he was always dashing from his front door to his car. This man began a small experiment with just walking to his car. He told me about growing up hearing that he had to “stay ahead of the game.” In his family, he reflected, simply being “in the game” wasn’t good enough. Keeping “ahead” was “keeping up.”
Walking to his car also led him to experiment with slowing down in other ways. He got serious about lowering his blood pressure, which, over time, helped him in his marriage. He developed better focus at work. His kids noticed he didn’t lose his temper as much.
I see this as the power of counseling: people claiming time to reflect on their lives with the support and attention of a therapist. It’s amazing to me how people’s minds, when given some active support from another human being, will readily generate solutions and possibilities which seemed not to exist an hour earlier. The ideas were there, if temporarily out of reach.
I don’t see my role as offering “helpful suggestions” such as, in this man’s case, that he consider slowing down, meditating more, or keeping a journal. And it would never have occurred to me to suggest to this man that he begin walking to his car! But when he repeated “I’m trying to stay ahead of the game” several times, I asked him about it.
I took a position of emptying myself of assumptions while scouting, along with him, for any moments or perspectives not dominated by his family’s old take on time. He and I collaborated to build a whole different outlook on time by questioning the notion of “keeping ahead.” He began to see how this notion actually reinforced his feeling constantly behind! The man still works long hours and still has occasional tense moments with his family. The same could be said for many of us. But he’s having a very difference experience of time, of himself and the people close to him.
Speaking of time, how much time in counseling does it take to shift something problematic in one’s life? Frequent meetings can build good momentum for overcoming the challenge that brought the person, couple or family in the door. On the other hand, I work with one family that comes to counseling just once a year — in early December — to head off the Christmas stress that used to lead to huge family fights. So, there are many different ways to claim time.
Two last thoughts:
- Who says time wins in the end? We each have a finite number of days on the planet. But no one can tell us how we think about and inhabit time day to day, hour by hour. In that way, we get to win.
- We have all the time there is! This one makes me laugh. Probably because it’s both surprising and totally true.