Inputs, Outputs

by Tom Swift

Time takes on new dimensions in quarantine. Some people have time to kill. Others feel urgency — a reminder that time is short. For no one, it seems, is the relation to time the same as it was pre-pandemic.

This weekend, I did well with my time. I read a lot. I engaged in multiple intellectual conversations with authentic people. I scribbled in my journal. I moved regularly. Without delay I took care of small tasks of the sort that weigh me down when I put them off.

Sunday especially I tended to lean into soul expanding moments — filling spaces in my day with constructive words from books, podcasts, conversations, and the ones that come up when I have a pen in my hand.

“People are frugal guarding their personal property,” Seneca pointed out, “but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” If someone tried to break into your house to steal your TV you would, justifiably, be furious. Yet if someone steals a half hour of your Saturday afternoon in mindless chatter on the street corner, or in prepackaged form on a screen, you allow it happen. Sometimes with a smile on your face. I know from personal experience.

We go through life tacitly thinking we will live forever. We give up time so easily on frivolous conversation and facile entertainments. We all need escape, yes, but escape is only escape if you leave and come back. Escape is not supposed to be the permanent residence.

What is and is not a turning away from self and growth and duty and responsibility is not always easy to delineate. The umpteenth cat video on Facebook seems to be time you will wish one day to get back. Yet social media is useful and a value-add for at least some people at least some of the time. You can force yourself to read Chaucer, sure, but if he’s not speaking to you, if you are absorbing little or nothing of the text, is that time well-spent? Is going for a walk with your dog good for you if you are checking your phone every other block? Context matters. The individual must assess for himself or herself.

For me, something flips when I get tired yet remain wired. After I reach the point in the day of sensory overload, I am more likely to over-consume food and take in empty calories of junk media. In those moments I am a poorer decision-maker. The science proves this is not uncommon.

A smart person I Zoomed with yesterday made a useful analogy: He said we know that the food we put into our bodies changes us on a molecular level — that is, genes get expressed in different ways depending on what sustenance we consume. Why, he asked, would our reaction to the other forms of consumption be any different? The question suggests the answer.

Force and will only get me for far. Abstinence is a losing strategy. Black and white seldom serves. The goal is not perfection — whatever that would even be — but consciousness: to be more aware of what we’re doing and what what we’re doing is doing to us. Then move toward those things that inspire, calm, or offer catharsis. More and more fill up our days with those moments and fight like heck to block out all the rest.

It’s not all good. As they say. No way.

The good news is that the assessment of the bad is itself a great opportunity. The very act of noticing that you just gave away an hour is useful time because you learned not to give away another minute the same way.