“That’s so sweet!” my student said, reading the item on my office door. “How old was your son when he wrote that?” “He was in first grade,” I replied. “What grade is he in now?” “He’s working on his Master’s degree in psychology.” The item has been on my office door for a while, because it was a gift—the sort of gift that keeps on giving.
The year that my son was in first grade, I was on a mission from God, just like the Blues Brothers. My course work was done, my language exams were passed, I had survived my comps. All that remained was to write my dissertation, defend it, get my PhD, get a teaching job somewhere (anywhere), and get on with our lives. I had a one year fellowship, paying the same pittance that my teaching assistantship had for the past two years, but with no teaching required. In other words, this fellowship was paying me to write my dissertation within a year. I’d heard an endless number of horror stories about people taking teaching jobs ABD (“all but dissertation”) who never finished the dissertation. It was now or never; hence, the “mission from God.” I warned my sons that once it was all done, they would forever after have to call me “Doctor Dad.” I threatened to put “Dr.Dad” on our Wisconsin license plate.
I spent 12-15 hours per day in the bowels of the Raynor Memorial Library at Marquette that academic year, while Jeanne and the boys saw less of me than ever. I clacked away on the keyboard at a mainframe computer terminal, then stood in line at the dot-matrix printer to get a hard copy of what I had produced. I lost weight—Jeanne says I’m the only person she’s ever met who could lose weight typing. I got an autumn cold that, after several weeks of being ignored, turned into walking pneumonia. But I kept trudging. A few months in, Christmas was approaching. One day Justin came home from school and pulled something out of a folder in his backpack. “Here,” he said holding the item toward me, “this is for you.” One of the first grade class’s projects was to imagine that they had the power to give any Christmas gift that they chose to whomever they chose. What would the gift be, and to whom would it be given?
Justin’s choice was neatly printed on a piece of lined paper cut out in the shape of a gift box with a ribbon on top. After coloring the ribbon, he had written, “If I could give a gift, I would give it to my Dad. I would give him the gift of time, because he’s writing a dissertation and he needs more time. If I knew anyone else who was writing a dissertation, I would give them time too.” Where on earth did this kid come from? I thought, as my eyes filled with tears. Jeanne laminated it at the school where she worked so that it would last, and it has—hanging on several different office doors over the past twenty plus years.
I had never thought of time as a gift. It was something to waste, something to spend, something that races too fast on occasion, then drags its ass at a tortoise pace, framing my days and years whether I like it or not. I was in my early thirties when I received the gift of time, with (I hoped) well over half my time on earth still to be lived. Now I’m in my middle fifties and passed the half-way mark years ago. More and more often I sense the bartender from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” behind me, calling with increasing urgency: “HURRY UP PLEASE! IT’S TIME!”
But what is time? That’s the question St. Augustine famously asked toward the end of his Confessions over a millennium and a half ago. After several pages worth of spinning his philosophical wheels, Augustine admits with his usual directness that “I must confess, O Lord, that I do not know what time is.” Time is indeed a classic philosophical puzzle. Is it “out there,” imposing itself on me? Is it “in here,” a subjective part of me that I impose on what’s “out there”? Both of the above? None of the above? I’ve had a lot of fun with students exploring the intricacies of time over the years.
Time is on my mind this week because school is back in session and going forward for the next several weeks I could easily work fifteen-hour days seven days a week (and probably will). But I began to learn on sabbatical five years ago that the most important changes in life are incremental, silent, and slow. To even notice change and growth, I’ve had to learn how to treat time as a gift occasionally rather than as a taskmaster. Most mornings begin with fifteen minutes of silence and reading the Psalms. Starting this blog a year and half ago has made it possible for me to discover little time-gift packages in unexpected portions of the day and week, ready to be unwrapped and used for nothing but reflecting on and writing about my spiritual journey. Not long ago I would have said there was no time for such an activity. Now I find that my centeredness and sanity depends on finding the time.
My six-year-old son, all those years ago, had an insight that most of us never have, or forgot immediately if we ever had it. Time is indeed a gift, grace on a silver platter. But so is everything else. Our lives, our very existence, every season, every task, every person we encounter, every molecule we breathe, is a gift of grace from the divine so profligate that the gifts continue regardless of what we do with them. The Apostle Paul told the church at Phillipi that they should “redeem the time,” do something appropriate and fitting with this one of the many “good and perfect gifts” that come from above. One place to start is sheer gratitude. “Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.”