Monday, February 14, 2011

On time mismanagement

If you’re between the ages of eighteen and forty, the chances are that you haven’t gotten your priorities straight. Why? Because you think you still have time.

Yes, I know that in general we’re living much longer today. I know that researchers have hopes of turning off the “aging gene” so we can look at eighty the same as we do at eighteen. (Of course, this will be an option only for the rich … assuming we’ll still have the research dollars to make this a reality after this year.)

But there’s no turning off the mortality gene. For you, tomorrow may never come; you may be shot to death in a convenience store robbery, or killed in an auto accident, or be the one in X percent of cancer patients for whom chemotherapy fails. That we’re living into our late seventies is not even the beginning of a promise that you’ll get to thirty-nine. This very night, your soul may be required of you (Lk 12:20).

In consideration of the day—St. Valentine’s—I direct this specifically to young singles “playing the field”. You think you’re actively looking for Mr./Ms. Right; the fact is, you’re distractedly browsing the racks while idly dreaming of the tailor-made mate. You think there’s plenty of time to settle down, get married and have a family … but you don’t really know that for a fact. And so you’re frittering away the ages best suited for parenthood in order to do—what?

Atheists laugh at our concern with heaven—“pie in the sky when you die”. But Christianity only sees such a future as a consequence of what we do today. Tomorrow—even fifteen minutes from now—is conditional; today, right now, is absolute.

To put this in perspective, let’s take mundane, materialistic matters as examples. The realtor is pushing you to buy into a house, the monthly payments of which will stretch your (combined) income to the limit. Over the years, it’s quite likely that your incomes will increase … but it’s also possible that you’ll run into layoffs, unemployment or any number of factors which will turn that dream house into a nightmare.

Let’s look at savings. At twenty, you’re probably not contributing to a 401(k) plan or setting aside any money for a rainy day. So far as you save at all, it’s purely short-term, for some high-dollar purchase (home audio-video equipment, a “chick magnet” car, blah blah blah). But every month that ticks by equals compounded interest you didn’t get; every day that comes is another day closer to that rainy day you’re not preparing for. And do we need to discuss the parlous shape that Social Security is in?

In your twenties, you most likely will be in the best health and have the most energy you will have for the rest of your adult life. The patterns of single life aren’t cast in concrete yet; you can still make the lifestyle adjustments successful married and family life require … at least, more easily than you could in your forties. More to the point, though, there’s no guarantee that in twenty years you’ll be any more financially stable or psychologically prepared for marriage and parenthood than you are right now.

(As to the latter, parenthood is like war in that not even the most realistic exercise can fully prepare you for the reality. As Peter De Vries put it, “The value of parenthood is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults.”)

Most of all, you have no real certainty that in twenty years you’ll be alive to explore the joys and anguishes of family life. If you have your priorities straight, you’ll realize that shelves and walls full of testimonies to your fabulous career are vain and transitory; they won’t be a circle of comfort around your death bed or attend your funeral. The nature of passing flings is that they pass; as Carol Leifer once said, “The problem with living together is that it isn’t really living, and it isn’t really together. Premarital sex quickly turns into premarital socks.” How many men or women attend a former lover’s funeral? In fact, how many men and women know when a former lover has died?

There are two edges to Jesus’ teachings on living in the now. One is in the similes of the birds and the lilies (Mt 6:25-34; Lk 12:22-31): It’s enough to take care of today’s problems today, because you don’t really know what tomorrow’s problems are going to be. With the right priorities, a lot of potential “tomorrow problems” will be solved long before tomorrow comes.

The other edge is that, just as you shouldn’t borrow tomorrow’s problems, you can’t really bank on tomorrow’s opportunities. Here parables and similes abound: the honest and dishonest stewards (Lk 12:41-48), the ten virgins (Mt 25:1-12), the constant exhortations to watch, as well as the rich fool previously referenced.

For our death is the time of our particular judgment, our “day of the Lord”, which we don’t know when is coming (Mt 13:35-37, 24:44, 25:13; Lk 12:46), which will come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2-3; 2 Pet 3:9-10; Rev 3:3).

It’s not nearly enough to settle our priorities for the day if our priorities for our lives are vague and vacuous. Once you figure out how you want to serve God, then you can find a proper niche for everything else in your life, and orient them towards that service.

Figure it out today. That way, in twenty years, you’re not wailing like St. Augustine: “Too late did I love Thee, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love Thee!”>[1]

You can’t avoid regrets. But if you have your priorities straight, you can guess which regrets don’t weigh so heavily.

For Further Reflection:
Msgr. Charles Pope, “On the Gift of Doing Just One Thing
David Mills, “Deconstructing Options”, On the Square, First Things

[1] Confessions 10:27.