By Audrey Kingstrom
It’s early August and I’m feeling wistful. I just turned another year older and I’m already anticipating the end of summer. While I’m reticent to acknowledge another birthday, I remind myself of the alternative of not chalking up one more year.
As for summer, I treasure the long days, balmy nights, and less structured time. I love how summer evokes a sense of timelessness when the garden beckons and delights, vacation days have their own ebb and flow, and starry nights offer a glimpse of eternity. Linear time seems suspended, at least temporarily, not to dominate the mind as it does the rest of the year.
The rhythm of life is different in summer as it connects us viscerally to the natural world and the cycles of life. Even for busy farmers and ardent gardeners, summer work is subjugated to the vagaries of the weather. The season offers a more serendipitous and less productive mindset.
We often think of carefree days as a luxury, but actually they are essential for human flourishing.
Most of us, then, could use some more down time in our lives — and some nuance to our time-frames. Why do we feel so guilty when we give in to those timeless moments? And, apart from the physics lessons, why should we rethink our perceptions of time?
Since the advent of the industrial age, our lives have increasingly been driven by the clock, the calendar, the timelines of companies, strategic plans, career goals, and personal schedules. Our workplaces began demanding regimen and efficiency wherein our culture became far too competitive and achievement oriented for our own good. Now even our personal lives operate much like a treadmill where we constantly feel compelled to do more, have more, be more.
Never satisfied or content with the moment. Always forward moving, in a timely linear fashion, to some distant shore or greener pastures.
Humanists, who have largely left the Christian worldview behind, still live by the narrative of its linear view of time. That one-dimensional time frame is the default mode for most of us.
Depending on one’s religious or philosophic lifestance, that timeline is either heading in an upward trajectory toward some distant utopian star representing continual advancement, or it’s primarily descending — down into the abyss of human failure to be redeemed at some future date by God, an even greater technological breakthrough, or the next Big Bang. In any event, our eyes are focused on a distant future and a grand finale.
Perhaps I’ve oversimplified these scenarios, but images charting and measuring where we’re heading in all aspects of our lives abound. And pundits vie to predict the outcome of the various trajectories whether they be some version of a heaven or of hell.
Take economics. Sure, there’s talk about business cycles, but the entire world economy is built on the presumption of continual growth. We are incented to produce more stuff, buy more stuff, and use more stuff. Further, time is money and any policy not sufficiently reflective of that standard might well be characterized as hell-bent. Few question the practice of charting our progress through time by the quantity of our baggage — which is clearly on the rise.
Take education. We keep adding more required years of schooling. High school, of course, but in four years. College, indeed, but in four years. All linear, we are told, is the best course. Then we need more training, more degrees. Schooling has become a critical component of an upwardly progressive timeline. We demand higher test scores. Everyone college ready. We are all destined to be above average on the treadmill of linear time.
Then there’s self-actualization: the pressure to perfect ourselves as we age on our own personal timelines. And also, of course, the push to advance in our professional lives in a timely manner. People constantly worry over the timelines of their careers with the incessant task of keeping them on the expected upward trajectory over the course of one’s life.
Even as a humanist, I too fall into the trap of judging my own life and the lives of others by this linear worldview. Not that it’s all bad; it has its place. But if we limit ourselves to this one-dimensional view of time and history, we could miss out on a life well lived. As so many of us try to find meaning and satisfaction through our accomplishments, this singularly achievement-oriented trek through time might just keep us from experiencing life fully in the here and now.
But some mindsets are hard to shake. From the perspective of linear time, the old adage “youth is wasted on the young” rings so true. Like many people, I often lament that I can’t go back and do my life over again; I would get so many more things right the second time around! But when we view our lives only as linear with one beginning, one middle, and then the end, we limit our possibilities.
More helpful is to draw on multiple concepts of time if we truly are to cherish our lives and flourish. Summertime can help with that, so savor these remaining days of summer.
Practice timelessness. Let the earth woo you as a lover. Summer, with its seductive beauty, can help us fall in love with life again — without all the stress or baggage. Spend time in the natural world to experience the sensation that simply to be alive in this moment is a gift. We all know that it could be otherwise. And when the grace of the world enfolds you, be glad to make something good of it and be ready to support those who are affronted by life’s scourges.
Embrace the cyclical concept of time to learn from the cycles of life. Every summer we’ve got another chance for a better, or more beautiful, garden. Another opportunity to plan a holiday adventure. Some unscheduled time to enjoy. Let the natural world be a teacher. Every season there is a prospect for a makeover — to learn from our mistakes, expand our perspectives, mend grievances, try something new. Sometimes to live well we need to recreate ourselves like a summer garden — to experience personal regeneration — when our lives seem passionless or adrift, or we need to opt out from a trajectory that no longer brings pleasure or satisfaction.
For humanists, the grand finale is merely death — not a reward at the end of life, getting our wings, or hope of heaven. We need to focus less on what our lives add up to in the end and more on the commitment we bring to living well each day.
Our lives are made up of a series of journeys, challenging episodes, mundane duties, delightful moments, purposeful tasks, satisfying relationships, and a variety of compassionate and noble endeavors. These are timeless pleasures and reoccurring experiences. But at their best, our personal histories are a collection of times we cherish because we loved life each day and lived them to the fullest.
Audrey Kingstrom is president of Humanists of Minnesota.