Decades ago I saw an improv play that left an indelible imprint on my psyche. In it, the Bureau of Aging and Growth (BAG) has granted the characters a year off from their regular commitments— job, school, homemaking—to pursue whatever is most important to them. At periodic intervals, they are required to report their progress to BAG. Needless to say, they get sidetracked and no one has made “good” use of their time. They have no accomplishments to report to BAG, and they act out their frustration with themselves in creative ways. The piece was a brilliant commentary on one of our deepest human questions: What do we do with the time that is given to us while we’re on the Planet?
We usually don’t face this question head-on because society structures our time for us. As children, we have school and homework, and in between we say: “Mom, I don’t have anything to do!” If Mom is resourceful, she will cook up projects to keep us busy. In school we develop interests and start to pursue them. We become involved in extracurricular activities, engage in sports, play games, hang out with friends, obsess about our maturing bodies, test our power with wheels and explosive devices, get drawn into temptations. Then we start to have committed relationships, find a job, and settle into the proverbial “rat race.” Along the way, we may find pursuits we are passionate about. All this keeps us busy—very busy.
Another time-filler is the media, especially the Internet and television. This steady flow of input—tantamount to hypnosis with our eyes open—numbs us and sucks up our last bit of time so there’s none left. We may even have to steal hours of valuable sleep to make up for the time spent.
Now let’s suppose we had a clean slate and were faced with a year of empty time: no obligations, no media, no distractions. Just 365 blank days stretching before us. It’s a scary thought. I submit that, employment and caregiving aside, we create much of our busy-ness—volunteering, hobbies, classes, sports, gaming, partying, talking on the phone, e-mailing, texting, Facebooking—to keep from having to stare into that yawning cavern of unstructured time. While all these activities have their place, I believe that one of our motivations for choosing them at any given moment is that we are afraid the unknown: what we might see if everything went still and perchance we got a glimpse of our true selves.
Here’s where the solstice comes in. As daylight gets shorter, we have long hours of darkness to fill. It provides the opportunity for contemplation. But the specter of spending time alone with ourselves is so scary that civilizations have invented holidays to see us through the dark. We shop, decorate, carouse, reach out to friends—all in an effort to avoid the abyss.
In my own life, my freelance translation business has been slow (clients carousing, contracts slow to come through). I am faced with time on my hands—time I could well use to do all those things I put off last fall because I was too busy. Yet I’ve been having trouble focusing on my priorities. I feel overwhelmed as I stare at that empty hole and wonder where and how to start.
The answer came to me this morning. Here’s my insight and the point of this blog. I now realize that Nature has her reasons. It’s all very purposeful. Empty time is a gift to be cherished, not avoided. This is time to be alone with myself. To contemplate if I choose to, read a book or two, listen to music, or do nothing at all. It’s okay to do nothing and let the thoughts flow. By not fighting the empty time, I feel certain that the pieces will fall into place in right order and I will emerge with greater understanding, focus, and the energy to tackle whatever shows up on my plate.
I can forget about reporting to the Bureau of Aging and Growth!