What Really Matters?

Which weighs more on the What Really Matters scale, a life of selfless, loving service to loved ones, or a couple of published books? How do we measure the value of our time?
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"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

--Percy Bysshe Shelley

Time is on my side.


Time, that great eater of Time.


The Batesville Day Parade in Batesville, Virginia is a throwback to an earlier time. The mayor usually drives by on his power lawn mower, the local church group throws candy from their "Jesus Loves You" float, a slightly scary militia movement marches by with flags and weapons, 12-year-old Little Ms. Albermarle County wears a crown and waves from a high-rider...and then there was us, the Sufi-Buddhist-Jewish hippies who had integrated ourselves into the community.

Our contribution to the parade never failed to raise eyebrows and generally won the "Most Creative and Unusual" ribbon each year. Once, my friend Asha marched inside a refrigerator box that we had transformed into a giant Grandfather Clock. I walked alongside her, and would approach the people lining the streets and ask, "Do you need any extra time?" and then hand them their prize: Eight inch circles of construction paper, numbered like clocks, and labeled as "Free Time," "Extra Time," "Spare Time," "Lots of Time," and so forth. When I ran out of circles, I began telling spectators, "Sorry, I'm out of time," or "I've got no more time."

I believe we were making some sort of profound statement about the nature of Time, but we left it to the bystanders to figure out exactly what the message was. But I can elaborate on it here, some 20 years later, now that all that parade hubbub has died down. Father William McNamara, a Carmelite monk, used to talk about "Holy Leisure," the great art of accomplishing nothing, and it's concomitant, appreciating everything. For when you are so consumed with getting somewhere, the destination becomes more important than the journey, and, as John Lennon reminded us, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." If we miss the journey, surely we've missed the whole trip. And yet the idea of "wasting time" feels like...like, well...it feels like such a waste of time! But if time is precious, what manner of "spending" it most fulfills its promise and purpose?

The Jews figured this one out in their approach to Sabbath, when for 24 hours one does nothing in terms of manipulating reality, producing anything or "becoming," and instead takes a deep breath into pure "being," relaxing into what has been called a "Palace in Time" that is actually outside of linear time. Committed meditators are essentially attempting to enter that Palace on a daily instead of weekly basis, for to spend a few moments free of time is to simultaneously recognize that that itself, paradoxically, is time's greatest use; yet measured by weekday standards, it accomplishes absolutely nothing! (The Zen people have been trying to sell us on Nothing for aeons.) For as the days continue to relentlessly race by, Sabbath provides a weekly respite, a glimpse of the Eternal, imagining that we are looking out over our lives and seeing that the work of our hands is done, and that "it is good." What a relief, yet immediately afterward we wind up the clocks, reset the timers, and come charging out of the gates, once again working way too hard, sometimes with great desperation, to get somewhere that we imagine is far more important than here, and we want to get there as quickly as possible!

The late great Jiddu Krishnamurti pointed out that time is actually the result of thought, or in a way, is thought: in those blessed moments when we drop the mind and enter the "flow" of our experience, or the "zone," all thought disappears and we wake up to the glory of the present moment, unblemished by memory or anticipation. It is only thought, when it enters back into consciousness, that automatically brings time along with it, and re-imposes the linear storyline in which we find ourselves, with all our pleasant recollections and/or laments about the past, as well as our excitement and/or anxiety about the future, all of which had, for a short while, been mercifully absent.

Then, to really confuse me, the Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche has advised that, just as we should not be preoccupied with the past or future, we should likewise avoid dwelling too much on the present! A statement like that is liable to send die-hard The Power of Now readers reeling off their meditation cushions, stupefied. His point, I believe, was that the "present" is still a time-based referent. It is a point in the continuum from past to future where we happen to be in any given moment, but it still keeps us on that continuum.

The only way out is through making a sideways, trans-dimensional leap into the Eternal, and that is easier said than done, unless it arrives, as is most often the case, through sheer Grace -- one of those rare gifts of awakening when we recognize that our fundamental, true nature is already, eternally free of time's tragic trajectory from birth, through aging to death. We see that we live as if we were actors in a "period piece." Past, present and future are when our story takes place, and we are but "a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage /And then is heard no more." Thankfully, our primordial, essential identity is revealed as prior to all that, impassive witness of it, and therefore ever-relaxed in the Eternal emptiness of a fundamental Being-Awareness that lives forever outside and prior to the tyranny of time. (But who has time to mull over things of this nature?)

For those of us striving to accomplish nothing, Facebook is a great time-waster, but it has redeemed itself lately by putting me in touch with a few people from my very distant past that I had assumed were gone forever. In one instance, I shared a deeply moving exchange with an old friend from my childhood, a woman with whom I'd had no contact for 45 years or more. She happened to be the target of a merciless vendetta I embarked on during our playground years, the object of which was to make her feel as terrible as possible. The only motivation for my behavior that I've been able to fathom in looking back, is that I probably found her beautiful and had a mad crush on her. What better way to express infatuation than through cruelty and torture? (Some of my girlfriends over the ensuing years might argue that it was a technique I continued to employ at times.)

I begged her forgiveness, received it, and we went on to catch up. She Googled me, looked at my website, and wrote something along the lines of, "Wow you're so accomplished! I'm the greatest underachiever of all time." As her story unfolded, it became clear to me that this was a grossly inaccurate perception on several levels. First, as I've just pointed out, perhaps it is only those who successfully master the skill of Holy Leisure that have truly accomplished anything of genuine, lasting value. Second, you're only as accomplished as you feel. When addressing would-be, first-time authors, I often repeat something I heard somewhere: "Don't expect your book to change your life." When writers are ensnared in the query-letter hell-realm, sending out sample chapters and accumulating rejection slips, they are usually completely certain that if their work were to be accepted for publication, the stars would change directions and rose petals would rain down from the Heavens. I myself ecstatically screamed with joy in my car when I secured the services of a great and esteemed literary agent for my first novel, Minyan, and he stated unequivocably, "We will definitely find a publisher for this book." (Just my luck, he died a short time later, but that's another story.)

Just as it is nearly impossible to convince someone who has never owned a home or a car that those acquisitions will not necessarily provide the happiness they expect, so too, an author has to learn through direct experience, for him or herself, that ageless Zen lesson: "Before publishing, chop wood and carry water; after publishing, chop wood and carry water." Our lives have a life of their own, regardless of our external successes and failures. I actually had a friend whose books once occupied both the number one and the number two slots on the New York Times best-seller list in the same week! He told me that it incidentally happened to coincide with one of the most deeply painful and difficult emotional periods of his life. Clearly, there simply isn't a meaningful, qualitative shift that occurs in our lives due to any outside source or achievement. We bring our sense of satisfaction and accomplishment into life; we can't hope to extract it from the events that happen out there. So if in the eyes of my old friend, I looked extremely "accomplished," in my own view, to borrow a phrase she used about herself, "I can barely use a spoon."

Her own story was that she had been inseparable from her younger brother when growing up, and when she was 20 and he 17, a wave snapped his neck and made him a quadriplegic for life, and she a lifetime caregiver, not only of him, but eventually of both her parents as well. She described beginning her day--for decades--at five in the morning, in order to go and help him before going to her own full-time job, then returning each night to drain his kidneys. She sat long hours and days by his bedside during his not infrequent, prolonged hospital visits, since he was unable to even ring for a nurse. Between her brother and parents, she described herself as handling everything: "...finances, emotional needs, living arrangements, groceries, overseeing their medical care, hiring doctors, terminating others, underwear, making them feel safe when it seemed impossible... my father had Parkinson's Disease for over 45 years, and my mom functioned with only 23 percent of her heart. I was the other 77 percent."

She went through two marriages in the midst of all this, and eventually stopped working after 31 years when the needs of her family began to demand all of her time, until one by one, she eventually lost all three of them. Her story leaves us with many questions:

Is she "accomplished" or is she an "underachiever?" How do we make that assessment, and based on what system of values? Which weighs more on the What Really Matters scale, a life of selfless, loving service to loved ones, or a couple of published books? How do we measure the value of our time, how we spend it, who we share it with, and what "gets done" in a day, a week, or a lifetime? Are we on an ongoing journey of soul-making or a desperate race to carve out a reputation that is only as solid and permanent as that of Shelley's Ozymandias, "king of kings," who was ultimately reduced to the "decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare," beside which "The lone and level sands stretch far away"? Poet Mary Oliver put all of this together into a single, powerful question, that I offer here, by way of conclusion:

"What will you do with your one wild and precious life?"

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