The Margins of Time

Do I think about life? Do I have values and intentions? If I have thought, and if I have values and intentions, do they end up manifesting in real life, in everyday life? It is easy, so easy, just to be carried along.

When I was growing up I didn’t really think about home or the life I had. It just was. The goodness of it either was not recognized by the child I was, or it just was presumed as the way things are. As an adult now I know the home I had growing up didn’t “just happen.” It was the result of thoughts and values and decisions by my parents. The home I husband and father will also be the product of thoughts, values, and decisions–or the lack thereof. Even if I were to take the path of apathy, or simple conformity to the average stream of culture around me, that would still reflect a value, a decision. But there are better ones.

When I look back now I know that growing up I really valued the amount of time my parents were present in my life. In no small part because of that, I put a high value on being present in my family’s life now as a husband and father. For the same reason I encourage my wife Debbie to pursue her desire to be very present in our children’s lives. Both of my parents did incalculable good by modeling life, and speaking into the life of this fragile little boy called Rundy. I would be a horrible wreck of a person if I had been cast on the shores of life and told to figure out my way alone. I have no illusions about being one of those hardy souls whose toughness allows them to make their way alone from a young age. Any strength in me took much time and nurturing to grow.

So Debbie and I try to be intentional in the choices we make about our children. I had a strong desire to work from home in the idea that I would then have great latitude and freedom in how I used my time, and would be able to be more present in the lives of my family. That hasn’t worked out, so instead my wish has been to have a job which allows me the greatest amount of time at home. I don’t have ultimate control over this, so it was more a prayer with the intention to make certain kinds of choices if the opportunity arose.

There are two ways to measure time: quantity and quality. In relating to a job, the quantity of time at home is the sheer number of hours not on the time clock. Quality has to do with whether the stress of work impacts the hours not at work. My Dad had a job which allowed him more time home than a lot of fathers now get in modern America. However, the job was exceedingly unpleasant for Dad so it was a constant misery which hung over him and deeply, profoundly, impacted his life in thoughts, attitudes, and physical health.

One of the scary things about being an adult was the imagined reality that having a job meant being in a situation just like Dad. Even once I was old enough to realize that not all jobs had such a profound negative impact on life, I still had the dreadful feeling that I was doomed to the same path of misery because like father like son….or at least just because.

In better moments of thinking I realized that while it is true I don’t have the power to avoid all misery in life (or even guarantee myself not to have a miserable job), my duty is to make the best choice with the options I have and accept my portion of misery (small or great) with as much good grace as I am able. This thinking about what my goal is, and what kind of choices I should make to direct myself toward those goals, has deeply impacted my life path.

There is the old adage, “Time is money,” but in this math equation the opposite is also true, “Money is time.” So there are the two questions, “How is money well spent to save time?” And, “How is time well spent instead of money?”

I grew up very poor by American standards. For all of my life, even through my young adulthood, I effectively had no money. Thus I had to think about how I would spend my time wisely, but there was not much thought about how I might gain, or spend, my money wisely in the pursuit of time. Money was not in the picture.

Now I am in the place of life where I am spending large amounts of my time on money. So the questions of efficiency and trade-offs in the time-money exchange have become very relevant. I spent a good chunk of money on a riding lawn mower to save myself time. That was an easy decision.

A lot of other decisions are more abstracted than buying a lawn mower and less easy to know that a right decision has been made. But it is good to ask, “What valuation of things is compelling the way I am thinking and the decisions that I am making?” When there is insufficient money for the basic necessities of food, clothing, and a roof over the head there is a compelling push to spend time on money. But within American society at large there is a huge presumed valuation that more money is clearly a good use of time. This creates a societal push toward the accumulation of money far beyond what is needed for true basic necessities. Is that time well spent?

How we each answer the multitude of questions tied up therein are more complex then the above statement might seem. I don’t mean to imply it is all simple; rather to illustrate that the societal pull would have us not ask questions which might undermine the very norms (wealth accumulation, status) upon which that society is built. I encourage you to think outside the box, whatever conclusions you ultimately reach.

I have chosen a job position with a low paying title in a place with very little opportunity for advancement. This sounds bad by American metrics. But it is a position where quantity and quality of time available to pursue the things that I value would be hard–if not impossible–to match in any other position or place. That is a huge statement for me. The value of the time at home I get in my current workplace would be incredibly hard to match by money in any other position. So in my valuation, it is a job that makes me richer than many other jobs.

But this is a valuation judgment. Right now I bring in enough money that our household income registers above the poverty line, but depending on how the rest of my career shakes out that may be a close thing. Perhaps I could end up on the south side of the poverty line instead of the north. This doesn’t concern me, but I mention it to recognize that my choices have not provided a huge margin of money. Instead, I have gone for the margin of time. For good or ill, my valuations and decisions will have a great impact on my children–even as my parents have had on me. It is a sobering thing to think about.

This leads to the next question. How do we use our margins–those remaining bits of time or money which are left after the job is done, or the bills are paid? I think I first read about the idea of “margins of time” online in a short essay a few years ago. The idea was that as in the ancient Mosaic law the Israelites were instructed not to harvest to the very edges of their fields, but to leave a bit around the edges for the poor in their community. The reuse of the idea is that we should not pack every minute of our time but to leave margins in our lives and days to be taken up by unplanned things, much as the margins of a field haverst were left for the unplanned good of the community poor.

I agree with the underlying sentiment in that construction–the idea that American society as a whole stuffs their days too full with extracurricular activities and after-work plans, leaving no time left to just be, just think, just breathe, and be there for other people–to see them, know them, experience life with them. But seeing the flaw in the rushing course of society is one thing–intentionally walking down a different path is harder.

What does having margins in time look like? I wrestle with that. I feel like I am failing at the ideal even as I see the world around me failing. Be that as it may, one example of making (or leaving) margin in time which I have written about elsewhere is creating space for a deliberate bedtime routine with the children. So that is something. That is not a bad start. But what would it look like to carry that kind of intention into the days I have away from work? I wish I could give myself an answer to that question.

I believe it does start with valuing things rightly, truly thinking, and then making decisions with intention. If I do none of those things, I surely will never reach any kind of good answer. But if I do walk down that path of valuing, thinking, and acting with different goals than society gives as default, I think the results will be both quiet and yet profoundly radical in its difference from the path which society at large is hurtling helter-skelter down. It can be scary and difficult in turns to walk this far off the beaten path. But I believe it is worth it.