Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Time and time again


Human beings are hardwired to regret. One of the most pernicious regrets is that of lost time.

Do the following statements sound familiar? We learn from our mistakes. Even suffering brings growth. If we take a wrong direction it provides valuable feedback that can enable us to make a better decision the next time. Similarly, if we are too frightened to act in case we make a mistake, then that defeats one of the main purposes of life, which is to learn.

All of these things are true. However, it’s also true that some mistakes come at a great cost, and that some decisions have serious adverse consequences. We don’t always get a second chance. These are hard truths that I believe some new age spiritualities do not take account of.

One of my earliest heroes was the melancholy Leo Sayer, surely the forerunner of today’s emo. ‘I’ve wasted, wasted, so much time / walking on the wire’, he wailed on one of his early and greatest hit songs, ‘The show must go on’.

For me, the hardest thing to put up with in my present life is that, from my own reckoning, I ‘waste’ huge swathes of time, especially compared with my idealised image of what someone with my degree of intelligence ‘should’ be doing. Inevitably I link this wasted time with the present structure of my life, which is the result of mistakes made years ago, when I was literally a different person from the one I am now.

I’ve long forgiven the wasted time of my late teens and twenties, when I didn’t know any better. But in my early and mid-thirties, when I’d started to recover from an eating disorder and gain some sense of engagement with reality, I continued to make some decisions that I knew at the time were unnecessarily timorous. The mistakes I made then led to wasted time that to some extent continues into the present.

This doesn’t mean that I never have valuable experiences. It does mean, however, that I miss out on many important aspects of life and I don’t work nearly as much as I’d like to.

Most of the time I can live with regret about the past – it’s gone, and I know I can’t change it. It’s the continued wasting of the present, the seeming unavoidability of that waste, that’s difficult. And this also relates to the realities of ageing and living alone. I can learn from my mistakes, but the fact is – to be perfectly blunt – at 47, it feels as if I’m literally running out of time.

There are three fronts on which the time appears to be washed under the bridge by forces I can’t control: not working enough because of fear of others, and therefore not being able to shovel money away for a more secure and fun lifestyle (own house, holidays, old age, more music, theatre, expensive clothes, money for good causes); through depression and anxiety not ‘improving’ myself enough ‘culturally’, with appropriately highbrow music, film, and literature; and through having my literary creativity curtailed by the ‘failure’ to achieve an emotionally and socially fulfilled life (the blog has helped a bit with the creativity).

I envy people who write successful books out of the horrors of mental and physical illness or addiction because it seems to me that they have somehow recuperated the ‘lost’ time, made meaning of it and created something new from it. Not only do they help themselves by writing their story down and shaping it into narrative, but they help many others by sharing their story and offering hope. They may also gain financially from sharing their suffering in a way that chimes with others.

I fully understand that I am clinging onto an idealised version of myself. If I had a family I would probably be overly busy, but much of that busyness would involve mundane tasks. I’ve always had a morbid fear of being a female parent, and being given the role of self-sacrificing ‘mother’ instead of equal partner in the parenting enterprise – I look at my sisters, all of them mothers, and simply don’t know if I am better or worse off than they. But fathers also get lost in the mundane – I think of the hours my brother-in-law spends ferrying his kids to footy and basketball.

Yet even amidst the ennui and chronic exhaustion, as a parent I would be able to tell myself that I was achieving a valuable long-term goal – the continuation of the species and the nurturing of tomorrow’s taxpayers and, hopefully, stewards of planet Earth. And my brother-in-law probably uses at least some of that driving (and game watching) time to bond with his children.

As well, the wound of loneliness sometimes requires the antidote of bad television rather than the intellectually stimulating read that some busy parents, including mothers, might crave. At times, such parents might envy the likes of me, free of the never-ending drudgery and pleas for attention. But they might find me curled up in a ball bewailing my fate as I watch Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares rather than poring over the Collected Works of Charles Dickens as Beethoven’s Ninth thunders in the background.

Obsessed with time management

My fear of wasting time also relates to the mistaken belief that not doing something productive is somehow sinful. I certainly didn’t pick that up from my Catholic upbringing. Instead, this fear stems from the time when I was completing my Masters thesis in the late 1990s. I was on a scholarship, studying full time, and surrounded by successful people who gave papers at conferences, tutored, learned French to improve their understanding of theory, and attended reading groups.

At the time, to my way of thinking the pursuit of knowledge easily trumped consumerism, materialism and any sort of interest in popular culture, and from my lofty, poverty-stricken heights I looked down scornfully on anyone who did not value intellectual endeavour, seeing them as sadly deluded. I spent hours in the library brushing up on theory, much of which has now long since vanished from my mind.

But the sense of directedness I saw in the high achievers was pervasive. I remember one day glancing behind me at the library queue and noticing my supervisor further behind me in the line, waiting to have a book checked out. She poked her head around to scan the queue and, with a quick jerk of her body, abruptly left. I still remember what that momentary action indicated to me: the instantaneous weighing up of the time she would lose in the queue compared with the convenience of having access to the book. This suggested someone whose life had no spare seconds, who was so full of purpose and responsibilities that time management meant the difference between ongoing achievement and mere striving.

So in the couple of years following my Masters I would use every minute of spare time ‘productively’, by, say, reading small cards on which I’d drawn kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese) while waiting forlornly at a city bus stop on a biting cold winter’s afternoon.

And before I started editing, and during the times when the work dried up and I was coaxing survey responses from reluctant telephone interviewees, I’d surreptitiously go over Japanese sentences while waiting for respondents to pick up the phone. Eventually the supervisors noticed and, despite my high success rate in obtaining telephone interviews, ordered me to stop. This caused me unseen angst; I couldn’t just relax and let the time be spent simply making enough money to live on. I was obsessed with ‘improving each shining hour’.

At its height, this fear of wasting time would have extended to, say, the idea of socialising with people who I didn’t have much in common with (ie my relatives!). But one gift of my social phobia, and the exploration I’ve done in trying to understand it, is that I now see those everyday interactions as being vitally important.

There are two reasons for this: they're good for mental health generally, because as humans we need to interact with others and feel safer when we’re with others, and particularly our ‘pack’; and because they provide me with valuable exposure practice for my social phobia.

So to some extent regret about wasted time is something I live with. Slowly I’ve begun to realise that the moment, even in its occasional awfulness, even when not filled with mental exercise, has its own integrity.

I could learn kanji till I was blue in the face but it would be useless, a waste of time, unless I was attending a Japanese class or had a reason for learning it such as a planned visit to Japan. Neither of these situations applied, so the keeping up with my Japanese study became, in the end, a waste of time rather than a good use of it.

The concept of mindfulness helped me understand this. Mindfulness involves becoming an observer of the self – one’s thoughts, perceptions, feelings and current actions – in order to move into the present in a more profound way. When I divide my attention too much (writing my diary while watching tele, for instance) I’m subtly diminishing my experience of time, indeed of life. While trying to save time, I may actually be wasting it.

I love good thrillers and I need to spend some time vegging out on weekends. But I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to decent thrillers at my local video store. So last weekend I ended up on a Saturday afternoon watching one of the worst klunkers ever made, Cold Creek Manor with Denis Quaid and Sharon Stone.

There literally wasn’t a scary moment in it; it could have been parody if it hadn’t been so dull and lacking in humour. It made me wonder about the technical aspects of thrillers – why some work and some fail spectacularly. But perhaps the most important thing for me to do was to actually pay attention to the film, observe and follow the creaky plot, and try and work out why it failed, rather than just having it on as background to my random thoughts.

Another reason why unstructured time is vital is that it refreshes the mind and enables creativity. Late one afternoon I took my seven-year-old niece to the park, supervising as she mucked around on the play equipment. For quite a long time she half-lounged on a swing, moving slowly back and forth as she gazed into space. This natural ability to enjoy mental downtime is too often mistaken for laziness. But it's the space in which new ideas and creative breakthroughs hatch themselves.

A book on worry that I read recently goes further than advocating basic mindfulness. In The Worry Cure, Robert R Leahy provides useful advice for incessant worriers who are busy dreading what the future might bring. One of his suggestions is that once you’ve brought yourself back to the present moment using mindfulness, you can add value to the moment, make it count.

I love this idea because it extends the concept of mindfulness so effectively. You bring yourself into the present, become aware of your body, breathing and perceptions; then you do something to improve the present, even if it’s just subtly. This could be something insignificant, like savouring a cup of tea, putting some music on (Beethoven’s Ninth?) or taking the kids for an ice cream.

Using intuition is also important to me in combatting my fear of wasting time. In the past I was constantly using my will to forge ahead; now I use intuition to decide whether something’s worth spending energy on. Anything that feels right can't really be a waste of time.

Being busy for the sake of it can actually cause harm. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s political demise provides a cautionary tale. Rudd seems to have been unable to stop work, to delegate, and he also caused great harm to his staff because he unapologetically worked them to the bone, no doubt causing havoc with their family lives.

‘A staff working year is probably like a dog year, that is it's probably worth seven years in normal life’, he was quoted as saying in The Daily Telegraph of 15 April 2010. That report also stated that he had lost 28 staff, presumably since coming to office in late 2007.

The coup that ousted Rudd in favour of Julia Gillard occurred for many and complex reasons, but the refusal to delegate seems to have been one of them. I sympathise with Rudd and wish fervently that the party had given him an ultimatum months ago rather than cruelly dealing the death blow – but I can’t help seeing in his fate a grim warning about the effects of overwork!

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