The Sting of Perishable Things

By Stephen S. Pearce

Shanah, the Hebrew word ‘year,’ connotes ‘repetition,’ and mahzor, the Hebrew High Holy Day prayer book signifies ‘another go-around.’ These words serve as a reminder of the brevity and preciousness of life. We do not have unlimited opportunities to get it right. Tempus fugit ‘ time flies, it vanishes, and then is gone forever.

Time ultimately devours everything. Nevertheless, not all time is the same. Time has different rhythms and cadences. There is wide variation in the way different people from dissimilar cul-tures and disparate ages perceive time. For example, in the run-up toward the end of the year, time moves with alacrity, but in the doldrums of January and February, time creeps along at a snail’s pace. Albert Einstein once explained the variable nature of time by defining relativity in this way: ‘When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.’ Furthermore, time moves more rapidly or slowly, depending upon one’s age. Oldsters experience the paradox of seeing time flying by at a cruel pace but are often burdened by idle days that weigh heavily on their souls as the hours seem to drag on and on. Holidays come around more quickly each year but days crawl at an exceedingly slow pace. However, for youngsters who cannot wait to grow up, reaching maturity often seems to take a lifetime. One school year can seem to last for an eternity. Recognizing a child’s perception that the passage of time moves with indolence, it is no surprise that a keen observer estimated that by age eight, children subjectively feel that they have lived two-thirds of their lives.

An acquaintance once told me of a painful time in his teen years when he felt stuck in a time warp that made it virtually impossible for him to age chronologically. When he was 14, he lied about his age, having said that he was 18 in order to get summer employment as a waiter at a Catskill Mountain resort. For the next few years, until he actually reached 18, he claimed the same fictional age, 18, for what seemed to him to be an eternity. It was only after he finally at-tained that age that he could resume growing up.

Swiss psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz in her book Time: Rhythm and Repose1 identified culturally biased determinants that define time in dissimilar ways. She emphasized that ‘even our seemingly self-evident concepts of past, present, and future do not seem to be uni-versal.’ The ancients conceived of time as a gift from the gods with a sacred dimension that is more than a mechanical ticking clock. She adds, ‘Only in modern Western physics has time be-come part of a mathematical framework.’

In Alan Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams2, Lightman depicts a young Einstein work-ing in 1905 on the theory of relativity that would ultimately revolutionize the conception of time. So obsessed was Einstein with time that at night he would dream about worlds where time is not chronological: a universe in which time runs backward, with people growing younger each day; a world in which time is circular, with events happening over and over again; and a world where time passes more slowly at higher elevations, sanctioning the rich to build at higher altitudes in order to live a bit longer than they might at sea level.

Humorist Harry Golden reported visiting a friend who complained that he worked much too hard and didn’t spend as much time with his family as he might have liked. ‘But it would not always be that way,’ he said. ‘After the children grow up, those will be the good days. Then I can take it a little easier and really begin to enjoy them.’ Golden concluded that it would never again be as ‘good’ as it was at that moment, because from that moment on, life would rush on and on to-ward an anticlimax. Soon the children would begin to lead their own lives, accumulate their own problems, and have their own musings about how much better life would be later on!

A distraught patient said to her psychiatrist, ‘Doctor, I keep seeing into the future!’ ‘When did this start happening?’ asked the psychiatrist. The woman replied, ‘Next Thursday!’ Technol-ogy has influenced the way we understand time as we have become a culture of relentless button pushers. We are compulsive in our search for improving the speed and efficiency of time. We have smart phones with SMS, MMS, GSM, GPRS, EDGE, HSDPA, and many others features. Our hyper-momentum, information-saturated world affects our relationship with time and with other human beings. As machines get faster and faster, the velocity of life speeds up, compress-ing time, so that we get impatient when we have to wait for anything. We relentlessly push an elevator button in the false hope that it will come sooner. Fast-food chains champion orders filled in ninety seconds. Even with that speed, people still tap their fingers on the counters and get impatient with the speed-driven servers.

You may remember that Domino’s Pizza had to stop its popular ’30-minute guaranteed delivery time or the pizza is free’ policy because of all the accidents its delivery people were getting into. Although the task of deliveryman is considered one of the ten most hazardous jobs, the company emphasized speed as well as safety in its driver-training manual. In a statement that is the antithesis of leisurely dining, the manual admonished its trainees to be mindful of the speed of fast food in these words:

Speed is vital. For Domino’s the deadline is 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the hungry customer begins to get restless. After 40 minutes, he gets worried. After 50 minutes, he gets irritated. After an hour he explodes.

After four years of this policy (in 1988), the Chicago-based National Safe Workplace Institute claimed that Domino’s drivers were involved in 100 accidents, resulting in 10 deaths in a one-year period. This was followed (in 1990) by the installation of a toll-free number that people could call to report a Domino’s employee driving recklessly; but following a $78 million judgment against the company for a near-fatal accident caused by a pizza deliveryman, the company finally abandoned the policy. Mary Jane Ryan in her book, The Power of Patience: How to Slow the Rush and Enjoy More Happiness, Success, and Peace of Mind3, reports that a popular Tokyo all-you-can-eat buffet has refined the meaning of ‘fast food’ by charging diners by the minute. The faster a patron eats, the cheaper the meal!

Computers that once seemed to race at the speed of light now seem to move at a snail’s pace and are too slow to operate more sophisticated software. The pace of change is so blistering that we feel like we are falling behind even before we are caught up. We multitask ‘ we answer emails and do other tasks while talking to others on the phone. I often hear the clicking of keyboard strokes, the dinging sound of instant messaging, or the hum of a microwave while I am talking to people on the telephone. People expect instant replies to emails and become increasingly insis-tent and upset when a day passes without the recipient pushing REPLY.

Do we really need the velocity at which all of our gizmos and contraptions operate? Time-saving gadgets ‘ computers, pagers, cell phones, call waiting, speed dialing, voice mail, and beepers ‘ have not created more time; rather, they have imprisoned us and made it impossible to accomplish things without interruption. The head of Hitachi’s portable computer division sums up this transformation in his admonition to his workers: ‘Speed is God, and time is the devil.’

Put another way, the mantra of our age is: ‘So much to do and so little time.’ People try to ac-complish everything necessary to complete a day’s work in the allotted twenty-four hours before a new day dawns and it is time to start all over again. Everything seems like a race against the clock. Rabbis and cantors hear the constant remark of brides, grooms, mourners, lay leaders, and worshippers who extend invitations to invoke and benedict: ‘Rabbi, keep it short.’ ‘How soon can you do it?’ ‘Hurry up with the joy.’ ‘Hurry up with the sorrow.’ ‘Hurry up with the cele-bration, with the blessing, with growing up, with dying.’ I bristle when I hear this. Brevity has become the major criterion for the success of a sermon, lecture, or address. No matter what the content, if it is short, it is good. Even if it is bad, as long as it is short, it is good. If it is long, no matter how good it may be, it is bad.

Some years ago, when the news came out that Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, his friends rushed to his home to congratulate him, and reporters and photographers hurried to interview and photograph him. One of the photographers asked if he would sit at his desk for a photograph while pretending to write something. Agnon scribbled a few words on a piece of paper and the photo was taken. After the crowd left, someone looked at the discarded piece of paper to see what he had written. It contained some words from the Yom Kippur liturgy: Adam y’sodo me’afar, v’sofo le’afar, v’chuley, ‘Man comes from the dust and returns to the dust, etc.’ The word v’chuley ‘ ‘etc.’ is key here and makes it clear that Agnon was thinking of the end of this liturgical line, which reads in its entirety: ‘Man’s origin is dust, his end is dust, and his life is a struggle for his daily bread. He is like a fragile potsherd, like grass that withers, k’tzitz novel ‘ like a flower that fades.’ Agnon, famous for plays on words, was making a pun. He said that life is fragile and precious, and that nothing is permanent, k’tzitz novel ‘ like a flower that fades. But k’tzitz novel can also loosely be translated to mean ‘including the Nobel Prize!’ Here was Agnon’s greatest achievement, his moment of greatest glory and adulation, and what it really reminded him of was his mortality and the realization that all life is evanescent, all glory is momentary, and everything ends in dust ‘ k’tzitz novel ‘ including the Nobel Prize.

If at no other moment of the year, this quiet time of prayer, meditation, and reflection is when we, too, acknowledge that all flesh is like grass; all its goodness, like flowers of the field, shriv-els and wastes away, as Isaiah emphasizes: ‘When the breath of the Lord blows upon them, man, like grass, withers, and fades’ (paraphrase, Isaiah 40:6’7). Many of us would like to make time stand still and make these and other moments last. If only we could freeze time in order to keep close what we love and cherish, and not see it fade and disappear into the embrace of eter-nity. We may scheme to save, stretch, or kill time, but nonetheless, finally, it kills us.

We come here not to weep but to fulfill. At this moment of memory and longing, we stand as witnesses to yet another rhythm of time ‘ transcendent time. This is forcefully brought into fo-cus by the profound understanding that the work that parents can no longer do must be taken up by children. Transcendent time pushes us to reconsecrate our lives to the tasks held dear by those we loved. We come to sing songs unsung that once resonated in their hearts. Through the veil of tears and longing, we see them before us at this sacred moment as we cherish their dreams and pledge to fill the void their passing has left behind, to be motivated by and thereby utilize what Jonathan Swift once called ‘the sting of perishable things.’ We cannot hold back time, but we can rise above it by making a pledge to fill the void left in our lives and in our community, accomplishing the work that they can do no more, taking up where they left off. We come here to make them proud by transcending the swift passage of time through the realization of the Psalmist’s powerful words: ‘Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom’ (Psalm 90:12). Amen!

  1. 1. Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Time: Rhythm and Repose. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1978.) [back]
  2. 2. Lightman, Alan. Einstein’s Dreams. (New York: Pantheon, 1993.) [back]
  3. 3. Mary Jane Ryan. The Power of Patience: How to Slow the Rush and Enjoy More Happiness, Success, and Peace of Mind. (New York: Broadway Books, 2003.) [back]