Trying to Square the Flat Circle of Time
Much of the suffering in life revolves around our desire to conquer time. When things are bad, we want to speed it up. When things are good, we want it to stop altogether. This, of course, is impossible, as time is not under our control. Events last as long as they last. But, try as we may, we don’t get a say in how long that might be.
If anything, our efforts in this fruitless endeavour only worsen things. The panic that ensues when captured by a terrible experience can make minutes feel like days. Conversely, the panic that ensues when we feel a glorious moment slipping through our fingers can make a day feel like seconds.
We want to hold time up as we would an object. “Look at this. This is time. I’ve saved it by doing my tasks well today. What should we spend it on?” In reality, time is more fluid and formless. It changes and flows depending on our experience.
There will be a last time
This acknowledgement of the ever-marching nature of time is commonly shared in parenting circles as the devastatingly sad “there will be a last time.” Hold tight to every moment, they say, because one day it’ll be the last time you carry them to bed, sing them a lullaby, or drop them off at schoo–are you crying? STOP CRYING.
I don’t particularly like this saying. Don’t get me wrong, it’s true; I just think it can ruin a nice moment. What I find off-putting is two-fold: it’s suggesting you hold onto moments with a clenched fist, and it’s almost meant to induce a sort of panicked guilt around enjoying every little thing. And you know what? A lot of life is not particularly enjoyable.
After a child is born, the parents don’t just bring home 7 lbs of mayhem. They also bring immeasurable amounts of guilt, fear, and unease. As all the stupid books will tell you, you’re supposed to know exactly what you’re doing from the very moment you conceive a child. A reasonably tall order considering there’s a good chance even the act of conception itself was clumsy and unsure.
The more realistic outcome is that you spend most days unsure of what the fuck you’re supposed to be doing. You’ve never done this. People are complicated. We’re hit and miss when it comes to taking care of ourselves, so to assume we can tackle this job like a pro is a cruel assumption. All of this contributes to a sort of gross-feeling unease that many parents exist in all of the time. It’s like running errands in a t-shirt but no pants. The most vulnerable of attire. It feels unnatural, and you can’t shake the feeling everybody is looking at you.
This discomfort takes public breakdowns to an other-worldly level of terrible.
Once in a bookstore, my then-toddler son yelled at me that I was a “stupid daddy.” Honestly, the reason behind all this escapes me. I was probably trying to plan his lunch or keep him from dying. You know—inexcusable things.
As I fireman-carried him and his thrashing limbs through this simultaneously silent yet packed store out to my vehicle, he bit my back fat. You know that section of fat between my shoulder blade and spine that used to be nice muscle but is now fat because of this child? He bit it as hard as he could.
I almost yelled the word. You know the word you’re thinking of but are wondering if I mean that word? I almost yelled it out in an Indigo Book Store. Thirty feet from the Curious George end-cap display and the series of Richard Scarry books, I nearly taught an entire generation of kids a shiny new word.
It was then that I met my least favourite person in the whole wide world. She means well, but she is the worst. Perhaps one day you’ll meet her in your lowest moment too. She’ll be middle-aged with delicate features, floating towards you with an obnoxious glow. She’ll wait until your eyes are welling up with frustrated tears before she says it because that makes it most annoying. It will arrive in a sing-songy tone: “Enjoy every minute. One day it’ll be gone, and you’ll miss it.”
I hate this person. This is my least favourite parenting person. Do not tell me to enjoy having my back skin nearly torn from my frame. I am a man with feelings, hopes, and dreams, and I will not be made a teething ring and then told to enjoy every minute.
Sometimes being a parent is super lame. There are wondrous moments and beautiful moments, but make no mistake: it can be brutal. It might even be more brutal than beautiful… it depends how many times you get bit.
Through these brutal moments, however, we can gain perspective over the crushing sadness of the last times. Yes, there will be a last time you carry your child to bed or hear them pronounce it “piss-ghetti,” but there will also be a last time they appear like a demon at 3 am next to your face because they’re thirsty. There will be a last time you sit defeated as freshly spit-up milk travels all the way down your back. There will be a last time they stare a little too intensely at nothing in a Walmart, making you realize they’re probably shitting themselves, and you’re about to have to tell your spouse you left the spare clothes back at the house. And you’d better believe there will be a last time they berate you publicly and then bite your back fat.
There will be a last time for the beautiful and the frustrating. We don’t often like to touch on the latter because optimism is a poor currency in the social media age. We all want attention, but sharing that some things get better is not how to get it. We’re naturally drawn to the more negative energies, so if engagement is what you want, best to focus on something devastating. Great for Instagram but a little rough on your mental wellness.
If there’s a villain at the heart of this exhaustive pushing of bad and pulling of good, it’s attachment. It is attachment that has us wishing for the remote control of life. If somebody informs you that there will be a last time your child asks for help opening a juice box and you get misty-eyed, it might be because you want a pause button for life. If somebody makes you aware that there will be a last time your kid will launch a handful of piss-ghetti at your face and you feel a surge of excitement, it might be because you want a fast-forward button for life.
Getting caught up in this rigged carnival game where physics always wins is more than just exhausting. It drains the meaning from life. The unwillingness to accept that time is beyond our control is a huge source of suffering in the world. Entire industries are devoted to helping you manage your time so that you may have more of it. Yet, for all the resources available to us to gain this time, it’s odd so many of us walk around feeling like there’s not enough of it.
At some point we must realize that time management is an impossible game, and every ounce of energy that goes into it is wasted. Yes, if you are particularly inefficient at a specific task, you’d do well to improve upon that task. Beyond that though, our obsession with moving the abacus beads of time around to find maximum efficiency is a fool’s errand.
There is a winnable game, though. It’s hard as hell, and you probably won’t like it at first, but it does possess the intoxicating factor of not being rigged by the universe.
As with most things, we quickly end up playing the wrong game. Instead of focusing on creating more time, we can focus on our reaction to it. The push/pull struggle isn’t only impossible, it’s distracting as hell. It pulls us away from what’s right in front of us. Have you ever wanted to document a momentous occasion so badly that it came and went, but your only memory of it is the anticipatory fear of screwing up the photo or video? The preoccupation with holding onto a moment can easily allow it to slip away unnoticed.
This street goes the other way too. Without fully realizing it, much of what we call pain is fear that it’ll never stop. The unknown tortures us just as much as a broken heart or a nerve signal. Letting go offers the belief that the pain is temporary, and that’s a significant factor in the pain resolving itself.
One of the most powerful realizations we can have is that moments, feelings, and everything else is supposed to come and go. Accepting that this beautiful moment you’ve happened upon will inevitably disappear is precisely what gives it meaning. Likewise, accepting that the impossible struggles will inevitably disappear provides relief. To put it another way, time running out is a gift.
You have a choice here. You can either ignore this fact and half-experience life or embrace it and experience life more fully. The moment doesn’t care; you can choose what you’d like.
Finding the balance
This sounds good in a blog post where nothing is happening. The practice of these beliefs is another thing altogether. How do we translate this into actual experiences? Can we take the death of a loved one and simply “let go” of our pain around that? In short, no, not really. While that may be the answer, it’s ridiculous to assume you could experience something that intense and merely turn off your level of caring. The feeling is too big.
Which is precisely why we must start small. We usually approach this problem with life’s greatest joys or most tragic struggles, neither offering much wiggle room toward success. That’s just playing alien chess before learning the rules of human checkers. So first, we learn checkers.
This life philosophy runs head-first into a wall when I consider one of my favourite hobbies. I adore taking pictures. The concept of capturing a moment in time thrills me. For this reason, you can imagine I might have an immediate pushback against a paradox arguing the best way to capture a moment is by not trying to capture it at all. However, I can see that my sometimes obsessive photo-taking does not always serve me. I’ve missed the shot I wanted on more than a few occasions, resulting in a “bad hike” or a disappointing outing. This was the first sign that maybe something was off.
You know when a snobby holier-than-thou old man tells you to put down the camera and enjoy life? Ya, I can’t stand that guy either. There is a discomfort towards that guy in the same way there’s a discomfort towards the “enjoy every minute” lady, namely that I can’t entirely disagree with them. Let me be clear, I strongly disagree with their timing and tone. The overall philosophy though? I do have to clench my jaw and admit that I get it.
As a fan of both taking photos and life, I resolved to try and figure this issue out. I want to be present, I don’t want to hold on desperately to the past, but I also want to partake in my hobby without feeling like I’m missing out on something more significant.
Last year I began work on a solution. I landed on an idea I first heard from Sam Harris, which boils down to the following: do whatever you want, but do it with intention. If you’re somewhere to have an experience, have that experience. If you’re somewhere to take photos, take those photos. Whichever it is in that moment, be clear about what you’re doing and do it with all your focus.
Sounds great in theory, but soon my pie-in-the-sky solution would be tested as we planned the most significant family vacation of our lives: Disneyland.
Forcing happiness in the happiest place on earth
First, some context to set the seriousness of the event. We are not a wealthy family. My wife has solid employment, which allows me a certain level of freedom concerning my career. It’s wonderful, but make no mistake, when instant ramen goes on sale, my pulse will quicken. With this in mind, a trip to Disneyland should not be taken lightly. It’s high stakes and prohibitively expensive.
Like parenting itself, Disneyland carries with it inherent stress. You must have fun. You must enjoy every moment. It costs SO MUCH MONEY FOR FUCK SAKE KIDS JUST SMILE FOR THIS PICTURE WITH THIS DOG THING SO WE CAN SHOW EVERYBODY HOW MUCH FUN WE’RE HAVING WHY ARE YOU CRYING.
There were several moments of deep reflection before the trip I found myself asking if I could handle it. It’s a big deal; we’re definitely only doing it once; I wanted to document it with photos but also not experience the entire thing through my telephone screen.
Bringing my new philosophy to the table, I developed a strategy: 3-5 photos of any one thing, max. Then the camera must go away. Like a sniper behind enemy lines, take your shot and then disappear. While the photographer within me cried out from under his douchey beret and behind his unnecessary scarf to capture different light and angles, I had to rein him in. There are times for photography. There are times for family. There are even times for photography with family (this one is my least favourite). This was a time for family.
Despite what my overly dramatic inner photographer might have you believe, you don’t need 27 different photos of a Disney castle. You can take three and nobody will call you out for lying. You absolutely went there. You have the smoking crater where your bank account used to be to prove it.
What I found on day one immediately proved to me that I was onto something. It was just so fun. Yes, I took plenty of photos, but I also put my phone away with intention. I watched little kids with their jaws open nervously approach a stormtrooper. Couples on their honeymoon buying ridiculous plastic ears monogrammed with “husband” and “wife.” Even my own kids were there. Probably. I don’t fully remember I was spending so much time charging off the love of other people. Just kidding. Sort of.
Life Lessons from Lightning McQueen
One day I haphazardly proved my point to myself in the fictitious town of Radiator Springs. You see, one of the parks has a complete recreation of the small town where the Pixar movie Cars takes place. The main attraction in this area is called Radiator Springs Racers. You get into a car that leisurely parades you around and introduces you to all the characters from the movie. At the halfway point, you end up outside where the speed amps up, and you’re sent for a fast ride that’s a little bit less than a rollercoaster but certainly fast enough for a damn good time.
The ride is brilliant because it’s slow and fun for little kids but exciting without being scary. You end up with a ride perfectly in the goldilocks zone for everybody. Unfortunately, that also means you end up with one hell of a line. Thrill seekers. Total cowards. They all come to Radiator Springs. At any given point in the day, the line could stretch and meander to such a length that you’ll spend 1-3 hours in it. As I told my 10-year-old son in a nervous fit of planning, “we do not fuck around with Radiator Springs Racers.” Was I out of line to curse at a child? Did it properly convey the seriousness of the situation? Yes, x2.
And fuck around we did not. We attacked with precision. While other families dicked about, positively aloof to the seriousness of the situation, we found the most efficient route to happiness. The ride was a super fun time, a memory I’ll hold dear until the ravages of decay decide to remove it for me. Until then though, Radiator Springs Racers was sweet.
Our planning was so good that our final day was dedicated to doing our favourite things again, which brought us back to Radiator Springs. This time though, I made a fascinating error: I decided to take a video of my kid during the race portion of the ride. I’d already experienced it, so why not take a moment and capture something kinda cool? Of course, it broke my 3-5 photo rule, but rules are for nerds, and I’m cool as hell.
I positioned my camera just so, and off we went. Ripping around corners and up and down hills… the video is pretty cool (I know because I watched half of it once). Here’s the thing though: for me, the experience was rather shitty. I was super focused on framing it to get my kid’s reaction set perfectly against the backdrop of the scenery. Not easy, but if you entirely remove yourself from the experience and focus solely on your camera work, you can do it.
I spent so much time focusing on nailing the framing that I can tell you the only thing I remember from the entire second ride (THE ONLY THING) is when a receipt whipped out of my pocket due to speed and flew in front of the camera, instantly pissing me off. Have you ever been mad at a receipt before? I have. It’s not nearly as thrilling as you may think.
Everybody came off the ride giving high-fives and smiles. I wasn’t precisely annoyed per se, but I was empty. Not overjoyed, not despondent, just flat. The realization was unkind: I had stood in a line for an hour and a half to feel nothing at all.
There’s a key factor here: it’s not a big miss in the grand scheme of things—hardly a tragedy. I’d already experienced the ride as intended. If anything, I’m grateful for the letdown. It proved that my process of taking the photo and putting the camera away was good. The contrast between that experience and all the others was stark. Ultimately, I had to wreck something cool to prove that I’d found the balance.
The draw to the camera is real. It certainly feels as though the only way to truly have the moment forever is to photograph and video everything. The problem is that if you spend the entire time taking videos or photographs, you’re likely not having an experience worth capturing in the first place.
Through these little experiments with life, we can prove to ourselves that attachment is harmful. It has to start small, though; we build upon that every chance we get. Maybe the bigger events will arrive one day, and we might just be ready for them.
It is uncomfortable to know that nothing lasts forever. So uncomfortable in fact, many ignore it until the day they get their final lesson on the topic. What I propose today is that just beyond our discomfort with this fact is something beautiful. Moments you actually remember, connections you genuinely feel, and pain that offers lessons in addition to scars.
I haven’t fully figured it out yet, but I think it’s probably there. I still reach for the fast-forward button every single day, trying to rush through beautiful things that I haven’t recognized as such. It’s a life’s work, and it’s hard most of the time, but I’m still convinced this is a direction worth taking.
Start small and spar with moments that are nice but not crucial—experiment with putting away the distractions in your life and give something your solitary attention. Whether the moment is enjoyable or uncomfortable, see what happens when you don’t try to hold or push it away. Unless somebody is biting your back, in which case you have my permission to lose control.