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Handling Time Gently

In 1984, film director Philip Gröning wrote the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse asking to make a documentary about their life at the monastery. Sixteen years – yes, years – later, they responded, and the result was the beautiful film Into the Great Silence. Most of us, if offered a movie deal, would consider ourselves restrained if we waited sixteen seconds before responding. 

In sports, the phrase “speed kills” is popular. It means that the player or team that is quickest, fastest to act or react, is the winner. It is a slogan for our times, for while we still believe “bigger is better,” it has also become an axiom that “faster is better.” While speed may be an asset in sports, I believe that in life, “speed” can be a hindrance and often a detriment. It may be a matter of temperament, but I contend that one of the greatest afflictions of modern culture is speed. You can call it haste, eagerness, activity, “busyness”; but whatever the name, it is the idea that the worth of something – or someone – is how fast it (or he) moves. I think it is killing us. 

We care too much about speed. We have made the passage of time, rather than the fruition of a task, our measure; as a result, we are doing more but accomplishing less.

Time Versus Task

We have an uneasy relationship with time. We “race against the clock,” and the irony is that the lifeless, inanimate participant seems always to defeat the living, animate one. We try to manage time, but more often it seems to manage us. In a capitalistic culture, the phrase “time is money” means that time rules. 

This confusion of time versus task is one reason why football has replaced baseball as our national pastime and, conversely, one reason why I now prefer baseball over football. As George Will quipped, football is emblematic of American culture because it is violence punctuated by committee meetings; but football also reflects our obeisance to the clock. The game is over when the clock says so. And, like all clock-ruled activities, it can even encourage wasting time (“running out the clock”). Baseball, on the other hand, savors time. There is no clock. Each side starts with an equal opportunity (twenty-seven outs), and whoever does the most with that opportunity (i.e., gets the most runs), regardless of time, wins. The game could last two, three, or four hours or more because, as the great philosopher Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” 

This equation of time with achievement has also affected education. Too many schools (and perhaps too many parents) try to make students do too much with the result that they really don’t learn much at all, or, at least, not as much as they should. I see too many boys rush to “get their homework done,” and not profit a lick by it. The writing is sloppy. (The student himself can barely read it.) If asked to give a reason for his answer, he can’t, because he didn’t care about getting the right answer, he just wanted to “get it done.” It becomes factory work, not scholarship.

A boy is a haphazard mixture of incongruent parts: intelligence, maturity, physical growth. And yet we have the odd idea that these should all march in lock step, grade by grade, so that by age fourteen or eighteen or twenty-one, they all fit together in our scheme for his development. It’s like expecting all the trees in a forest to grow at the same rate. 

Now, I believe very much in punctuality, and this is not a defense of dawdling or sloth. There is also much to be said for “meeting a deadline” (though this expression, too, makes time a sort of guillotine). An examination of our culture and our lives, though, would, I believe, show that the rule of time over task has impoverished us. As technologically advanced and productive as our culture is, it is also cheap. Whether information, furniture, or relationships, we may have more, but they are worth less.

So what is the answer? The idea I’m looking for is a phrase I encountered in a book about monastic life. The author said that the monks “handle time gently.” It has taken me a long time to understand what that means, and I probably don’t grasp it completely; but the essence seems to be in allowing nature, not a machine, to tell me when something is done. As G.K. Chesterton reminded us, if it is absurd to think that something which was false on Tuesday is true on Thursday simply because it is Thursday, so it is equally absurd to think that something which is not done at 2:59 p.m. is done at 3:00 p.m. simply because it is 3:00 p.m. 

As a culture, our experience of time has accelerated at a compound rate. A hundred years ago, a letter (itself taking time to compose) could take a week to get from Boston to San Francisco; today, a text is instantaneous. A meal that may have required an afternoon to prepare now can be “zapped” in minutes with a microwave. This is not all bad. In medicine, police work, and war, it can be beneficial. 

This acceleration of time, though, and, like an accelerated heart rate, can be dangerous. It breeds impatience, another hallmark of our age. Time should be, at best, a secondary consideration in any undertaking. A clock is something artificial, and we shouldn’t let something artificial determine something natural. (“Natural” here means in accord with nature, whether it be the nature of a thing or a person.) A steak is not cooked just because it has been on the grill a certain time. A wine isn’t ready simply from having sat in a barrel a set number of months. A boy doesn’t magically become a man when the calendar has flipped over so many times. But our culture tells us in so many ways that the clock or calendar is right. 

Reframing Time

In beginning any undertaking, the question should not be “How can I get this done fastest?” but rather “How can I accomplish this best?” And “best” here means best for the task and for me. What tools, what methods, what approach will allow me, or even force me, to do this as it ought to be done and to help me become more virtuous? 

For example, whenever possible, I try to write by hand and use a fountain pen. Yes, it takes longer; but that, in a way, is the point. I want my thoughts and their expression connected as closely as possible, working in rhythm and at the same pace. Writing by hand gives my mind time to sift for the right word. Requiring my hand to form the words gives me time to hear it, and good writing is as much about sound as sense. Forcing me to write clearly helps me to think clearly. (There is another essay in this for penmanship, but that is for later.) 

I’ve also found this driven home to me in cooking, a weekend pastime I’ve taken up much to the delight of my wife. You cook not only with ingredients but with all your senses. It’s not the timer and the measuring spoons that tell when the vegetables are done, but your taste and smell (and you must do this with your eyes closed). Your teeth tell you when the pasta is al dente. My eyes, not the recipe, tell when the salmon is cooked. 

You say, “But that takes time.” Perhaps we shouldn’t think so much of taking time as giving it. Time is the most precious thing we have, and to give it is our most precious gift. That is why the best things, the most precious things, are done slowly. 

You say, “But I wouldn’t get anything done.” St. Francis de Sales replies: “A thing is done soon enough when it is done well.” In truth, you will actually get more done by going slowly because it will be done. How often have we rushed something only to find we have to do it over again because we hurried through it? How many emails have we sent to correct earlier ones sent in haste? How many times have we had to apologize for words we said when “Let me think about it” would have been better. How much junk bought on the spur of the moment is cluttering our homes? “Measure twice, cut once,” as the master carpenter says. 

The great violinist Itzhak Perlman advised his students to practice slowly with this admonition: If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly; if you learn something quickly, you forget it quickly. This also is the idea behind lectio divina, the slow, thoughtful reading of scripture. Medieval theologians compared it to a cow chewing its cud. If that is too coarse for you, think of it as sipping a good wine. Scripture itself tells us that the words of God should be “tasted” (cf. Ps. 34:8; Heb. 6:5). You don’t get the taste of something in a hurry. As the saying goes, a contemplative is one who tastes his coffee. 

Most of us try to do too much anyway. Here’s another nugget to think about: perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing more to take away. That is true with a good curveball, a good speech, and a good life: no wasted effort. Our problem isn’t that there is too much to do. Our problem is that we’re wasting our time on so many unimportant things. 

To handle time gently means caring deeply about doing a task right and, at the same time, being detached from it. The Carthusians were able to take sixteen years to make their decision about the film because they wanted the decision to be right. They didn’t care about money, fame, practicality, their reputation, and all the other things that so often rush and mar our decisions and work. They simply wanted to do it right. 

We should have a hobby or pastime, the only purpose of which is to do it right. It may be gardening, calligraphy, fly-fishing, or cooking (fast food is an oxymoron): something that can’t be hurried if it is to be done well. It should be something done with our hands. We are corporeal, not angelic, beings. Our hands, not our heads, should set the pace. This is why parents should encourage such things as Legos and making models of airplanes or ships. These foster patience, care, attention to detail, and living in the moment. It is no coincidence that our Lord was raised by a carpenter.

It is also a reason why art is an important part of the curriculum at The Heights. There are two times when you will find a classroom absorbed in attentive silence. The first is during a test; the second is when you have the boys engaged in an art project. They have to look, to see, to reflect. Yes, that’s a chair: it’s brown, has four legs, and a back. But what shade of brown? And where does that shade change? Where are the nicks and the shadows? And are the legs really straight? No, they curve a little. Where? How much? Why? And the back – how high does it go? Does it curve? There is really so much to a chair. 

Back to our Lord: Fr. Ronald Knox had this idea of handling time gently in mind when reflecting on that enigmatic phrase “Do not hold me” spoken to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection. Knox takes it as meaning, “There’s no need to cling to me; I’m not going anywhere. Savor this moment.” Knox goes on to say that we should have this attitude with others, especially when taking leave. Don’t hurry off and don’t hurry others off. Who knows? It may be for the last time.

I’ve taught at The Heights for twenty-three years and an expression that resonates with many parents is “The days are long but the years are fast.” I now teach the boys of boys I once taught. It has given me (some) perspective. Don’t rush things. Make time for things that take time: meals, get togethers, bonfires, good books, friendships. To handle time gently is to allow the matter at hand, not the clock or a calendar, to tell us when we’re done. It is a frame of mind that makes things that last, whether a chair, a decision, or a family. It goes against our culture. That, though, is what we are here for.

About the Author

Robert Greving

Latin, English

Robert Greving has been a member of the faculty at The Heights since 1999. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps.  Originally from North Dakota, Mr. Greving earned a B.A. in history at Louisiana State University.

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