The subject line said “Thank You for your time” and it wasn’t from an address I recognized, so my hand automatically went to the “delete” button. I figured it was probably a lawyer for some deposed princess in Nigeria, and was about to go on to the next of two hundred e-mails waiting for my attention. But for some reason, I hit the “enter” key instead.
The font was in a hard to read aqua color, but at least it was large enough that I didn’t have to reach for my increasingly necessary reading glasses. I don’t remember what the first line was now, something about an old man and a boy. Again, the hand reached for the mouse and headed for the delete icon, but, oh, what the heck.
You know that guilty pleasure we all experience in the checkout line at the supermarket. You wouldn’t be caught dead buying one of those rag magazines, but since you’re there in line anyway, and the lady ahead of you has six boxes of Twinkies and a dozen cases of diet soda in the basket and is corralling six kids as she counts coupons, why not see what Hilary’s alien baby looked like?
I was here, the e-mail was open, and my brain was frankly too tired to do anything really constructive anyway, so why not?
It was quite lovely, actually. Well written, and there may even have been a kernel of truth in it somewhere. A boy had befriended an old man many years before, often spending time with the old man rather than playing with his young friends. When the old man died, the mysterious golden box (they’re always golden, aren’t they?) that had sat on the old man’s mantel showed up in the now grown man’s mailbox. When the boy had asked what was in the box, the old man had said, “the thing I value most”. The boy had often wondered what that was, but over the years had of course forgotten everything about it. Now he had the golden box, and could see what was inside. As he opened it, he saw inside a beautiful pocket watch with a note that read, “What I value most is your time”.
Time. “I don’t have time for this,” I thought. “I have to get ready for the show tomorrow. Who is sending me this syrupy nonsense?” I was ready to hit the reply button and tell whomever it was who sent this to me please, no more forwards.
And then I stopped dead. It felt like someone was standing on my shoulder chastising me. “What is so important that you can’t stop and think about this for a minute?”
Indeed. Would five minutes either way make any difference to my future? Would an hour, or two? I thought back to the many hours I had spent as a child sitting at my Oma’s kitchen table, chatting with my aunts and being teased by my uncles and enjoying their time and the unconditional love from the most wonderful family in the world. I was a smart fat kid, not exactly the kind that other kids wanted to hang around, and that tiny farmhouse with the loving family was my safe haven from the taunts and cruelty of childhood and adolescence.
I grew out of the baby fat and became a confident young woman, due in large part to the time spent with me by all of my extended family. In the early days of my career, I still lived fairly close to them, and even though I was busy dating and earning degrees in my off-work time, I still went to see my grandparents every chance I got. As I look back at it now, I was probably a bit selfish in that regard. I would just show up, sometimes with good news, just as often with tears from a broken relationship or a professional disappointment, but they were always there. They always had time for me.
They were working people. They didn’t have much in the way of material goods, but like so many other good people, their lives revolved around their children and grandchildren. There are no bequests or trust funds for any of us, but we are among the richest of the rich, for we received the gift of time over and over again.
Even if the grandparents 'had something else they should rather be doing, they would always have time to spend with us. They would invite us along to feed the rabbits or shepherd the ducks back into their pen. If they had to pick apples or strawberries, they invited us along for that, too, and it didn’t really matter that we slowed them down. Unlike my frantic, driven parents, these wonderful people always took time when it was needed.
When I was younger, I thought it was just because my parents were so busy trying to earn a living. But as I sat in front of that e-mail, I realized that no, that wasn’t the case. They just value time for a different reason. They still do, even though they’re both now retired. To them, time was and still is something to be managed and exploited. For my grandparents, it was there to be enjoyed and shared. Maybe it’s because they managed to survive the horrors of the second world war, and knew firsthand that time was precious indeed. Every moment was a gift, to be shared and treasured because any one of them could be your last.
As I re-read the story of the golden box, I realized something else. I was much more like my parents than my grandparents. To me, time had become a commodity to be apportioned to my various tasks. In order for me to “make it”, every moment had to be utilized because, once gone, it could never be regained. I have often said that if I’m not multi-tasking, I’m not happy.
But the vision of the golden box and the story of the boy and the old man made me realize that I wasn’t really enjoying many of my moments. I’m impatient with the speed of my computer and heartily resent five minutes spent in a grocery line. I visit with elderly neighbors and friends, but then rush off back to work, feeling guilty that I have wasted fifteen minutes when I should have been writing or networking or something.
What kind of stupid is that? What is my life review going to be like when I get to the end of this rat race and realize that none of this made any difference? I’m not going to be any richer or smarter or more famous because I passed on all the fun times. I’ll get to the other side and say, “Damn! I just wasted that whole life!”, and I’m not so sure I want to have to come back and do this all over again.
Recently a friend passed on from cancer. She was in terrible pain for many weeks, and was constantly drifting between worlds. From that unique vantage point, she was able to bring back some valuable insights, and one of the last things she said to me was, “If you don’t get joy out of something, stop doing it.”