Saturday, January 7, 2012


It is very difficult for me to sit and look at the times and circumstances in which I find myself and those around me, and not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of opportunity and challenge that we alone as a generation are privileged to face. This was in large part the topic of my previous post. Our time is a unique, chaotic, and beautiful one - if not brutal. In some sense, we are truly a lucky generation, and we need to recognize that fact.

However, there is another aspect of our times for which, I think, we are to be the most pitied. Even while we have access to tools and technologies unheard of by any age before us, we are also cursed with the terrible and seductive powers of abundant, meaningless, and fruitless pleasure. Never before has mankind been so able to distract himself. Never before have we had access to such myriad and varied ways of piddling a life away. Never before has man been so good at wasting time. 

Consider how you or I might choose to fill a small block of free time in the year 2012. Let's say, ten minutes. I think it would be fair to say that most of us would have the impulse during this small break to check the internet. For me, when it is available, this is my strongest temptation. Facebook. Twitter. Reddit. IMDB. Wikipedia. Your particular farmville clone. Snopes. XKCD. Yahoo. Etc. Etc. Or let's say your have a bigger span, maybe an hour or two. Why not watch a movie? Play some call of duty. Watch some Lost, or Bones, or 24, or whatever new pop sitcom or action serial is popular. Get back to farmville (Seriously, for pete's sake what is the appeal of this game?!) World of Warcraft. Whatever your particular vice (Recently mine has been watching the X-Files.)

Look. I'll let you decide what you consider to be a waste of time or not. It's your life and I don't care to defend or attack pedantic arguments about why such and such stupid waste of time is or isn't a stupid waste of time. I just think that at the end of the day, there will be a shamefully large amount of people who will be lying on their deathbed and feel embarrassed by how much time they spent playing "Angry Birds". 

Don't get me wrong, I am in the same thumb twiddling boat as everybody else. I recognize the herculean effort it takes to resist the simple endorphin releasing pleasures of youtube. It's hard to walk forward on the path that's adorned with so many neon signs. Especially when so many of us have nothing to walk toward. I think there are a couple big reasons why permanent distraction has become such a serious pitfall for our busy world.

Aside from the technological advances that have made such fantastic and addictive pleasures so abundant, which I think are more or less apparent, there is a huge ideological problem that's been forty or fifty years in the making (In America at least). It's an old and popular idea, but it's never been a good one for building and maintaining societies. In essence, it's the belief that pursuing personal gratification is an acceptable goal for a human life. In other words, "If it makes you happy, do it." In a sense, we all act in our own self interests at all times. However, by setting up personal, individual happiness as the most important goal of our lives, we've lost a lot of our ability to sacrifice immediate pleasures for more meaningful and lasting accomplishments. 

This particular form of hedonism (which is really as old as people are) has seriously eroded our ability to serve a cause greater than ourselves. Ideas like duty, commitment, loyalty, discipline, and service are not conductive to such a worldview, and are the first things to go when our lives don't seem to be serving our greatest personal interest. Especially in the absence of causes greater than ourselves to dedicate our short lives to. These sort of greater works that our grandfathers had unfortunately are seemingly unable to satisfy in the same way as they did before. We can serve a nation that commits actions we can't condone. We can give our lives in service to a religion that we don't believe in or doesn't work. We can dedicate our lives to a company that will gamble away our pensions. We can lay down our lives for a marriage that statistically is bound to fail, and where such a failure is socially acceptable. Long story short, the growing distrust of our oldest institutions, institutions that at one time gave our lives meaning, now leave us in a world without a compass bigger or truer than our own desires. 

But I think there is another big reason why we have become so excellent at wasting time. Advances in medicine have changed the way we look at death, and therefore, how we look at time. Our ancestors we're considered lucky if they could scrape out a meager 40 or 50 years of hard labour, the lion's share of which was pure toil - survival itself was a major chore. Today, most of us expect at best, and at worst feel entitled to, a long life of 70 or 80 years of relative ease. A family and a house. A steady job. Certainly no want for food. And anyone who doesn't achieve these milestones is considered a sad and unlucky case, however exceptional nonetheless. Only a hundred years ago, millions of young men and women were cut down at 19 and 20 to war and disease. An entire generation, lost. Today, a man who dies at fifty is claimed - with perhaps some legitimacy - to have been unfairly taken at such a young and blossoming age. 

In brief, because our highest commitment is to our own pleasure, due to the crumbling or absence of higher causes, and the seemingly distant day of our deaths are some big reasons why we can spend two hours in a day playing words with friends. 

But the truth is, we have no guarantee of that time. I'll probably be dead a hundred years from now. But there's a chance that I could die later today. The real truth is old and tired, but true: we can't add an hour to our lives. Our time is not our own, and what we are given, however brief, is a gift. 

Recently I've become obsessed with the following question. It's become the first thought I have when I wake up, and the last thought I have before I fall asleep. It's a frightening idea, and perhaps morbid, but a sobering one. The question I find myself asking most often these days is this: if you die today, what will you have to show for it?

I've had an excellent and healthy 21 years, and God willing I'll have another 20 more. But there is simply no guarantee that we will wake up tomorrow. It takes incredible willpower to keep this truth in mind everyday, especially when so much of that time is spent in monotony and tedium. What man truly understands that he is dying daily? But remember, gratitude is all about having the proper perspective, and the honest truth is that these twenty one years I have enjoyed; I did nothing to earn them. And any time beyond that is not entitled to me, but simply a gift over which I have no control. 

I say this not to be morbid or depressing. I do say this to scare you, because we should be afraid of wasting a life that is not ours to waste. 

Gratitude can be a motivating force. We often think of gratitude as a reflective, passive attitude. We look back at the things we've been given, and then feel grateful. However, real gratitude is about recognizing our gifts and responding appropriately. I don't know what the appropriate response is to the fact that our days are numbered, however I bet that it doesn't involve a facebook app. 

Imagine a man who was given twenty thousand dollars. His benefactor declares that the money is his to do whatever he wants with, just as long as he stayed reasonably in touch. Many years later the benefactor and the man run into each other, and the rich man asks how the young man spent the money he had given him. He looks down at his shoes, shrugs, and with a whimper he explains: "Well, I spent a couple hundred on an xbox, that was probably the first thing. Then I bought a car, but I crashed it. Ahhh. I went to this fancy restaurant I like a lot. I gave some to my buddy Ron because we wanted to buy a boat. I lost a bunch in this pyramid scheme. Oh I gave some to charity! But that was pretty much just what I had left over after the trip to Hawaii...So um. Yeah that's about it. Thanks a lot by the way. I really appreciated it." 

That's not what gratitude looks like. Gratitude takes a gift and puts it forward. Gratitude takes time and spends it on others. 

A day is going to come when you will be called to account for every hour you had and spent. Either by God or by your own conscience, you're going to ask yourself, "What have I to show for my life? What did I do with my youth when I had it? What I do with my older years, that so many are denied? Did I do everything I possibly could have to use it well?" We're human, we all have regrets, we all waste time. But a deep, abiding gratitude for our lives and for the time that has been given to us will produce an appropriate response. The grateful do not squander their gifts, and hopefully true gratitude can help us from squandering our very lives. 


  1. Wow....very convicting Greg. Thanks for the kick in the pants to get off FB, for starters!

  2. WHY, Greg? Why do you make me think about how I spend my time?? I second my mother's post, "very convicting"...

  3. Greg - I always appreciate your insight on the world around you. I hope that people will take the time to read this all the way through and really give some thought as to how they spend their time. I hope someday - sooner rather than later - you and I can have a conversation about this blog. There is so much I am grateful for in my life- one of them being that I often choose to "waste" my time doing things for my students. I never regret that time - it always comes back to me in some way. Keep up the amazing work, Cousin!

  4. Thanks everybody. The ironic thing is the obnoxious length of these things, which compels my dear readers to spend a fair amount of time reading them. Time they could spend doing others things. For this I am very grateful!


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