Time

I retired a year ago after attending 19 years of school and working for 38. I feel grateful for these years and have no regrets. However, sometimes I reflect on what I would have done differently had I known then what I know now.

These 57 years involved a specific structure related to time. Every weekday I arose to the sound of an alarm clock and went to school or work where I focused on accomplishing tasks. During the weekends and vacations that punctuated this weekday routine, I pressured myself to relax while simultaneously squeezing in the other parts of my life – exercise, “me time,” family, friends, etc. On weekends and vacations I fretted about school or work, and on weekdays I imagined weekends and vacations.

While engaged in one task, I churned about other items on my “to do” list and hurried the present activity in order to move on to the next. As an example, while seeing a morning patient, I might think about an upcoming patient scheduled for that afternoon, and while seeing the afternoon patient, I would ruminate about the morning patient. Consequently, while seeing one patient I would often be thinking about another.

I became fueled by the illusion that by moving fast enough I could outrun the clock and aging. As a result, I felt I was constantly swimming upstream in time. Occasionally, I glimpsed the possibility of a different relationship with time. In 2012, as my wife recovered from cancer surgery I blogged the following passage:

My wife’s recent stay in the hospital brought back the sense of  “patient time.” Watching her rhythmic breathing as she slept in a cloud of medications, I felt a rare burning clarity about what was important at that moment – to be at her bedside together with close friends and family. During her two days in the hospital, my endless task list disappeared into the background of the non-urgent. I felt still as time gently ebbed and flowed around me. Conversations, punctuated by comfortable quiet, seemed unrushed and important. I was present.

Work and school revolve around scheduled activities and tasks to be accomplished on time. But after my transient ischemic attack (TIA, or “mini-stroke”) in 2013, I learned I had a choice about my relationship with time as I performed these necessary activities. I found I could “float in stillness” in the midst of urgency.

If I knew during my many years of school and work what I know now after the TIA and retirement, I would have more intentionally cultivated curiosity about my relationship with time. As I planned and accomplished tasks, I would have practiced floating in time rather than struggling to swim upstream. I would have invited stillness and spaciousness into my days filled with movement and urgency, and opened my heart to gratitude.

We need urgency to fulfill the “head” aspects of improving health and well-being. Stillness is required for the “heart” of our work when we when apply our compassion and empathy to patients, members and colleagues.

What is your relationship with time?  How do you combine urgency with stillness?