All in Good Time

I’ve been reading a fascinating book about time. Not the kind we measure with our clocks and wristwatches, but the deep down core of time: what the scientists call “proper time.” This seemingly straightforward phenomenon actually has more twists and turns than a roller coaster!

Did you know that time travels at different rates depending on where you are? For instance, if you live on a mountaintop, time will move faster than if you reside at sea level. That means that if two people start out at exactly the same stage of life, the mountain man will age more quickly than the one down on the plains in the same interval of time.

Speed matters, too. Suppose there are two friends, one of whom is of a sedentary disposition while the other moves rapidly. For the mover, time will pass less quickly than for the one who’s sitting still. They tested this theory back in the seventies by putting precision watches on jet planes and measuring them against watches that stayed on the ground. Of course, all of these time differences are measured in nanoseconds. But the fact remains: time is not the inflexible entity we might think it is. It is far more mysterious than that. And that mystery extends into our human lives as well.

We’re all familiar with the subjective nature of time. The long, lazy days of our childhood summers felt interminable compared to the way they pass by nowadays, virtually in the blink of an eye. The time between one birthday and the next can seem endless to a kid, while they come all too rapidly for us grown-ups. Become engrossed in an absorbing task, and the hours will fly away; stuck in an elevator or a doctor’s stuffy waiting room, they appear to crawl. These are not scientific phenomena. But they color the way we perceive time just as if they were.

There are certain common milestones in people’s lives, markers along the highway of our time on earth. Not everyone reaches these milestones at the same time. It can be hard to watch others sprint ahead to the goal post while you’re lagging behind in their dust. When people express frustration to me about where they are in life, I tell them that every person’s journey is different. It’s not a question of one big racetrack with everyone trying to outrun each other, but rather of numerous individual tracks laid out for numerous different individuals. Everyone’s journey through life is unique to him. That means that we each reach our milestones in our own good time, and not anyone else’s.

I’ve always wondered why some parents are so eager to see their babies reach their milestones extra-early. Turning over, sitting up, crawling, standing and walking are abilities that will hopefully all come in their turn. Where’s the rush? The same might be said of girls who hurry through their high-school years in order to embark on their “real life” sooner. But the real damage occurs when people start being competitive about reaching life’s most important milestones. When time becomes a prize instead of a road.

Our personal journeys through life are not a race. Nor are they interchangeable. If I lag behind you in one area, you may lag behind me in another. Competition to get ahead first, however understated, leads to envy and misery. Besides, not all milestones are in open view, available for public consumption. Some are hidden inside, covered over like the engine of a car to serve as the motive power for the trip. One person’s inner wisdom, insight and emotional growth cannot be measured against any other person.

Each of us will reach these internal milestones in our own good time, each moving at our own, unique pace based on our own, unique circumstances.

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Time has been compared to a river. Imagine pushing someone into a fast-flowing river before she has mastered the art of swimming. Barring a miracle or a series of exceptionally fortunate moves, she is likely to flounder or, c”v, even worse. Is it any wiser to push someone into a stage of life that they’re not ready to enter?

True, all of us will grow on the job. Sometimes there’s good reason to jump right in and paddle frantically until we gain our sea legs. But if a person lacks the maturity and the emotional tools she will need to do the job properly, shouldn’t she be prepared rather than pushed? Some people are lucky enough to hit all of life’s markers right on time. Others are late bloomers. Though they may thrust up out of the ground later in the season than most people, their color is equally lovely and their fragrance just as sweet.

For some, time’s journey will take on a different shape than that of their friends. Maybe she’ll reach her milestones later than they do. Maybe the graph of her life will look a bit unsymmetrical compared to other people’s, with long, empty stretches followed by a cluster of activity. But that’s okay. Because this is her personal road through time, and no one else’s.

Time is also cyclical in nature. Instead of flowing steadily forward like a river, we can think of time as endlessly repeating itself. There is a well-known Hebrew expression: galgal hachozer. The wheel of life turns. And turns. And then turns some more…

Like a Ferris wheel, it will lift you high into the air so that, for a few dizzying moments, you soar above the heads of everyone else. Then, inevitably, the wheel crests and you sink down to brush the ground … only to slowly, creakily, begin the upward trip again. Life is like that, full of ups and downs, good fortune and misfortune. The view you enjoy at the top will be different from the one you see at the bottom. At different turns and at different heights, there are nuggets of wisdom to be gained and enriched by.

Some people seem to be born on the ball, quick to pick up the secrets of success. Others come to the same basic realizations much later, and with more difficulty. But there’s no reason to compare or condemn. We are all spinning through our own, unique orbits. Competition flies away as Time picks us up, every one, and sweeps us into the same confusing and exhilarating ride on the giant wheel of life.

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Whether you liken it to a river or a wheel, time is not the fixed and monolithic thing we might have thought it was. It wears as many faces as there are people in the world. It changes its stripes with the passing seasons. It can weigh as heavily around a man’s neck as a circle of stones or fly by as lightly as a thistle whistling past your ear.

Most of all, time is not a prize to be captured by the fleetest or the ablest. It is a journey shared by us all, though each of us experiences it differently. Our lives are a network of intersecting roads marked by unique and personal milestones. Travel down yours with joy!