August 22nd, 2014

Time and summer time

This was the summer of hellos and goodbyes, the summer when I played with time and time played with me. It was the summer of reunions, my 45th college reunion and the 49th time that my closest high school friends and I came together to celebrate our long association and enjoy one another’s company.

It was hello to our son’s future wife and our daughter’s future husband. For every hello, there was a goodbye. Friends gathered and scattered. Children sailed away to distant shores leaving the memory of their laughter and the promise of future visits. With most of these events happening in the short space of my two-week vacation, this summer left me wondering about the nature of time itself.

After being away from the hospital for only four days, I returned to conduct a meeting and deliver a lecture before starting my vacation in earnest. In the short period of time I had been away, I said hello and goodbye to my son and his fiancée and heard the news that my daughter was engaged. If the perception of time passing has anything to do with the pace and magnitude of change in our lives, then I had lived years in a period of four short days. The hospital was familiar yet also strange because so much had happened in such a short period of time, recent events had re-focused my priorities and the circumstances of my visit were so different from my usual workday routines.

Everything was different on the drive home. The roads were relatively empty now that rush hour had passed and the sun glinting off objects at an unaccustomed angle gave the world an unfamiliar glow. Anticipating the days to come with their promise of meeting my daughter’s future father-in-law, reuniting with old friends for our annual reunion and getting the house in order for our guests, I was a million miles away from the professional role that had come to define so much of my identity.

As the events of the next two weeks unfolded, each new experience opened onto vistas of untraveled roads through unexplored lands. Cracks were beginning to appear on the surface of well-worn routines giving hints of something new and unexpected beneath the veneer of everyday life. If all moments could be like these, then why was the Zen ideal of living in the moment so hard to realize? But wait, I’m getting ahead of my self and that, I discovered, is precisely why I have not yet mastered the art of living in the moment.

To live in the moment, as Zen masters and DBT specialists advise, is to be fully, nonjudgmentally and unselfconsciously present in the now. Living in the moment is the habit of being completely absorbed in what we are doing, feeling and thinking, noticing and letting go of any errant thought that might distract us from the present experience. Even in the best of my recent moments as I noticed and tried to savor every aspect of the experience, I was already dreading the impending separation from loved ones, anticipating future visits, wondering how, when and where they would happen and reminding myself that life would not always be so good. Had I been better at living in the moment, noticing and appreciating more of what was happening around me, time might have slowed down and expanded to accommodate everything with which I managed to fill it. Then, when I returned to work, my two-week vacation would have seemed like a month.

The arrival of old friends always does interesting things to my sense of time. I have always loved reunions and I take every opportunity to participate in both formal and informal gatherings of people with whom I have shared important times in life. Old friends carry shared memories and in a group each of us contributes details that others may have forgotten. In this way we re-construct the events, sometimes important and sometimes just odd or funny, that made us who we are. Laughing with old friends about something that happened as if it were just yesterday nurtures the illusion that time has been standing still but, even if we wanted to, we can’t escape the “as if.” The fact is that we know it wasn’t “just yesterday” and time has not paused to give us an extra several decades. While this realization is undeniably sad, in a larger sense it opens us to the immense resources of knowledge and experience that the passing years have conferred on each of us to share for the benefit of all. And share we did but, more importantly, we laughed.

In his book, “The Museum of Innocence,” Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, seems to agree with our remedy for the sadness of realizing that time eventually comes to an end. Citing Aristotle’s distinction between single moments that he calls the “present” and time as the line that connects them, Pamuk creates a character who builds a museum of objects that carry the memories of his happiest “particles of Now.” Happiness, Pamuk’s hero tells us, comes only “if we can learn to stop thinking of our lives as a line corresponding to Aristotle’s Time, treasuring our time instead for its deepest moments, each in turn…” If this character could jump off the page of his novel, I could imagine him running a mindfulness group at the hospital and then joining me for next year’s reunion. We’d have a blast.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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