There Is No Time,
There Will Be Time
(In the summer of 1998 Ms. Noonan wrote this essay for the magazine Forbes ASAP. It was published in the Nov. 30, 1998 issue, devoted to the subject of time--how we experience time, how modern men and women relate to it in ways that might be different from our predecessors. Ms. Noonan has received many requests for reprints since recent terrorist strikes in New York City.)
I suppose it is commonplace to say it, but it's true: There is no such thing as time. The past is gone and no longer exists, the future is an assumption that has not yet come, all you have is the moment--this one--but it too has passed . . . just now. The moment we are having is an awfully good one, though. History has handed us one of the easiest rides in all the story of man. It has handed us a wave of wealth so broad and deep that it would be almost disorienting if we thought about it a lot, which we don't.
But: We know such comfort! We sleep on beds that are soft and supporting, eat food that is both good and plentiful. We touch small levers and heat our homes to exactly the degree we desire; the pores of our bare arms are open and relaxed as we read the Times in our T-shirts, while two feet away, on the other side of the plate glass window, a blizzard rages. We turn levers and get clean water, push a button for hot coffee, open doors and get ice cream, take short car trips to places where planes wait before whisking us across continents as we nap. It is all so fantastically fine.
Lately this leaves me uneasy. Does it you? Do you wonder how and why exactly we have it so different, so nice compared to thousands of years of peasants eating rocks? Is it possible that we, the people of the world, are being given a last great gift before everything changes? To me it feels like a gift. Only three generations ago, my family had to sweat in the sun to pull food from the ground.
Another thing. The marvels that are part of our everyday lives--computers, machines that can look into your body and see everything but your soul--are so astounding that most of us who use them don't really understand exactly what they're doing or how they do it. This too is strange. The day the wheel was invented, the crowd watching understood immediately what it was and how it worked. But I cannot explain with any true command how the MRI that finds a tumor works. Or how, for that matter, the fax works.
We would feel amazement, or even, again, a mild disorientation, if we were busy feeling and thinking long thoughts instead of doing--planning the next meeting, appointment, consultation, presentation, vacation. We are too busy doing these things to take time to see, feel, parse, and explain amazement.
Which gets me to time.
We have no time! Is it that way for you? Everyone seems so busy. Once, a few years ago, I sat on the Spanish Steps in Rome. Suddenly I realized that everyone, all the people going up and down the steps, was hurrying along on his or her way somewhere. I thought, Everyone is doing something. On the streets of Manhattan, they hurry along and I think, Everyone is busy. I don't think I've seen anyone amble, except at a summer place, in a long time. I am thinking here of a man I saw four years ago at a little pier in Martha's Vineyard. He had plaid shorts and white legs, and he was walking sort of stiffly, jerkily. Maybe he had mild Parkinson's, but I think: Maybe he's just arrived and trying to get out of his sprint and into a stroll.
All our splendor, our comfort, takes time to pay for. And affluence wants to increase; it carries within it an unspoken command: More! Affluence is like nature, which always moves toward new life. Nature does its job; affluence enlists us to do it. We hear the command for "More!" with immigrant ears that also hear "Do better!" or old American ears that hear, "Sutter is rich, there's gold in them hills, onward to California!" We carry California within us; that is what it is to be human, and American.
So we work. The more you have, the more you need, the more you work and plan. This is odd in part because of all the spare time we should have. We don't, after all, have to haul water from the crick. We don't have to kill an antelope for dinner. I can microwave a Lean Cuisine in four minutes and eat it in five. I should have a lot of extra time--more, say, than a cavewoman. And yet I feel I do not. And I think: That cavewoman watching the antelope turn on the spit, she was probably happily daydreaming about how shadows played on the walls of her cave. She had time.
It's not just work. We all know the applications of Parkinson's Law, that work expands to fill the time allotted to complete it. This isn't new. But this is: So many of us feel we have no time to cook and serve a lovely three-course dinner, to write the long, thoughtful letter, to ever so patiently tutor the child. But other generations, not so long ago, did. And we have more timesaving devices than they did.
We invented new technologies so that work could be done more efficiently, more quickly. We wished it done more quickly so we could have more leisure time. (Wasn't that the plan? Or was it to increase our productivity?)
But we have less leisure time, it seems, because these technologies encroach on our leisure time.
You can be beeped on safari! Be faxed while riding an elephant and receive e-mail while being menaced by a tiger. And if you can be beeped on safari, you will be beeped on safari. This gives you less time to enjoy being away from the demands of time.
Twenty years ago when I was starting out at CBS on the radio desk, we would try each day to track down our roving foreign correspondents and get them to file on the phone for our morning news broadcasts. I would go to the daily log to see who was where. And not infrequently it would say that Smith, in Beirut, is "out of pocket," i.e., unreachable, unfindable for a few days. The official implication was that Smith was out in the field traveling with the guerrillas. But I thought it was code for "Smith is drunk," or "Smith is on deep background with a really cute source." I'd think, Oh, to be an out-of-pocket correspondent on the loose in Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris--what a thing.
But now there is no "out of pocket." Now everyone can be reached and found, anywhere, anytime. Now there is no hiding place. We are "in the pocket."
What are we in the pocket of? An illusion, perhaps, or rather many illusions: that we must know the latest, that we must have a say, that we are players, are needed, that the next score will change things, that through work we can quench our thirst, that, as they said in the sign over the entrance of Auschwitz, "Work Brings Freedom," That we must bow to "More!" and pay homage to California. I live a life of only average intensity, and yet by 9 p.m. I am quite stupid, struck dumb with stimuli fatigue. I am tired from 10 hours of the unconscious strain of planning, meeting, talking, thinking. If you clench your fist for 10 hours and then let go, your hand will jerk and tremble. My brain trembles.
I sit on the couch at night with my son. He watches TV as I read the National Enquirer and the Star. This is wicked of me, I know, but the Enquirer and the Star have almost more pictures than words; there are bright pictures of movie stars, of television anchors, of the woman who almost choked to death when, in a state of morning confusion, she accidentally put spermicidal jelly on her toast. These stories are just right for the mind that wants to be diverted by something that makes no demands.
I have time at 9. But I am so flat-lined that I find it very hard to make the heartening phone call to the nephew, to write the long letter. Often I feel guilty and treat myself with Haagen-Dazs therapy. I will join a gym if I get time.
When a man can work while at home, he will work while at home. When a man works at home, the wall between workplace and living place, between colleague and family, is lowered or removed. Does family life spill over into work life? No. Work life spills over into family life. You do not wind up taking your son for a walk at work, you wind up teleconferencing during softball practice. This is not progress. It is not more time but less. Maybe our kids will remember us as there but not there, physically present but carrying the faces of men and women who are strategizing the sale.
I often think how much I'd like to have a horse. Not that I ride, but I often think I'd like to learn. But if I had a horse, I would be making room for the one hour a day in which I would ride. I would be losing hours seeing to Flicka's feeding and housing and cleaning and loving and overall well being. This would cost money. I would have to work hard to get it. I would have less time.
Who could do this? The rich. The rich have time because they buy it. They buy the grooms and stable keepers and accountants and bill payers and negotiators for the price of oats. Do they enjoy it? Do they think, It's great to be rich, I get to ride a horse?
Oh, I hope so! If you can buy time, you should buy it. This year I am going to work very hard to get some.
During the summer, when you were a kid, your dad worked a few towns away and left at 8:30; Mom stayed home smoking and talking and ironing. You biked to the local school yard for summer activities--twirling, lanyard making, dodgeball--until afternoon. Then you'd go home and play in the street. At 5:30 Dad was home and at 6 there was dinner--meat loaf, mashed potatoes and canned corn. Then TV and lights out.
Now it's more like this: Dad goes to work at 6:15, to the city, where he is an executive; Mom goes to work at the bank where she's a vice president, but not before giving the sitter the keys and bundling the kids into the car to go to, respectively, soccer camp, arts camp, Chinese lessons, therapy, the swim meet, computer camp, a birthday party, a play date. Then home for an impromptu barbecue of turkey burgers and a salad with fresh Parmesan cheese followed by summer homework, Nintendo, and TV --the kids lying splayed on the couch, dead eyed, like denizens of a Chinese opium den--followed by "Hi Mom," "Hi, Dad," and bed.
Life is so much more interesting now! It's not boring, like 1957. There are things to do: The culture is broader, more sophisticated; there's more wit and creativity to be witnessed and enjoyed. Moms, kids and dads have more options, more possibilities. This is good. The bad news is that our options leave us exhausted when we pursue them and embarrassed when we don't.
Good news: Mothers do not become secret valium addicts out of boredom and loneliness, as they did 30 and 40 years ago. And Dad's conversation is more interesting than his father's. He knows how Michael Jordan acted on the Nike shoot, and tells us. The other night Dad worked late and then they all went to a celebratory dinner at Rao's where they sat in a booth next to Warren Beatty, who was discussing with his publicist the media campaign for "Bulworth." Beatty looked great, had a certain watchful dignity, ordered the vodka penne.
Bad news: Mom hasn't noticed but she's half mad from stress. Her face is older than her mother's, less innocent, because she has burned through her facial subcutaneous fat and because she unconsciously holds her jaw muscles in a tense way. But it's okay because the collagen, the Botox, the Retin-A and alpha hydroxy, and a better diet than her mother's (Grandma lived on starch, it was the all-carbo diet) leave her looking more . . . fit. She does not have her mother's soft, maternal weight. The kids do not feel a pillowy yielding when they hug her; they feel muscles and smell Chanel body moisturizer.
When Mother makes fund-raising calls for the school, she does not know it but she barks: "Yeah, this is Claire Marietta on the cookie drive we need your cookies tomorrow at 3 in the gym if you're late the office is open till 4 or you can write a check for $12 any questions call me." Click.
Mom never wanted to be Barbara Billingsley. Mom got her wish.
What will happen? How will the future play out?
Well, we're going to get more time. But it's not pretty how it will happen, so if you're in a good mood, stop reading here and go hug the kids and relax and have a drink and a nice pointless conversation with your spouse.
Here goes: It has been said that when an idea's time has come a lot of people are likely to get it at the same time. In the same way, when something begins to flicker out there in the cosmos a number of people, a small group at first, begin to pick up the signals. They start to see what's coming.
Our entertainment industry, interestingly enough, has plucked something from the unconscious of a small collective. For about 30 years now, but accelerating quickly this decade, the industry has been telling us about The Big Terrible Thing. Space aliens come and scare us, nuts with nukes try to blow us up.
This is not new: In the '50s Michael Rennie came from space to tell us in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" that if we don't become more peaceful our planet will be obliterated. But now in movies the monsters aren't coming close, they're hitting us directly. Meteors the size of Texas come down and take out the eastern seaboard, volcanoes swallow Los Angeles, Martians blow up the White House. The biggest-grosser of all time was about the end of a world, the catastrophic sinking of an unsinkable entity.
Something's up. And deep down, where the body meets the soul, we are fearful. We fear, down so deep it hasn't even risen to the point of articulation, that with all our comforts and amusements, with all our toys and bells and whistles . . . we wonder if what we really have is . . . a first-class stateroom on the Titanic. Everything's wonderful, but a world is ending and we sense it.
I don't mean: "Uh-oh, there's a depression coming," I mean: We live in a world of three billion men and hundreds of thousands of nuclear bombs, missiles, warheads. It's a world of extraordinary germs that can be harnessed and used to kill whole populations, a world of extraordinary chemicals that can be harnessed and used to do the same.
Three billion men, and it takes only half a dozen bright and evil ones to harness and deploy.
What are the odds it will happen? Put it another way: What are the odds it will not? Low. Nonexistent, I think.
When you consider who is gifted and crazed with rage . . . when you think of the terrorist places and the terrorist countries . . . who do they hate most? The Great Satan, the United States. What is its most important place? Some would say Washington. I would say the great city of the United States is the great city of the world, the dense 10-mile-long island called Manhattan, where the economic and media power of the nation resides, the city that is the psychological center of our modernity, our hedonism, our creativity, our hard-shouldered hipness, our unthinking arrogance.
If someone does the big, terrible thing to New York or Washington, there will be a lot of chaos and a lot of lines going down, a lot of damage, and a lot of things won't be working so well anymore. And thus a lot more . . . time. Something tells me we won't be teleconferencing and faxing about the Ford account for a while.
The psychic blow--and that is what it will be as people absorb it, a blow, an insult that reorders and changes--will shift our perspective and priorities, dramatically, and for longer than a while. Something tells me more of us will be praying, and hard, one side benefit of which is that there is sometimes a quality of stopped time when you pray. You get outside time.
Maybe, of course, I'm wrong. But I think of the friend who lives on Park Avenue who turned to me once and said, out of nowhere, "If ever something bad is going to happen to the city, I pray each day that God will give me a sign. That He will let me see a rat stand up on the sidewalk. So I'll know to gather the kids and go." I absorbed this and, two years later, just a month ago, poured out my fears to a former high official of the United States government. His face turned grim. I apologized for being morbid. He said no, he thinks the same thing. He thinks it will happen in the next year and a half. I was surprised, and more surprised when he said that an acquaintance, a former arms expert for another country, thinks it will happen in a matter of months.
So now I have frightened you. But we must not sit around and be depressed. "Don't cry," Jimmy Cagney once said. "There's enough water in the goulash already."
We must take the time to do some things. We must press government officials to face the big, terrible thing. They know it could happen tomorrow; they just haven't focused on it because there's no Armageddon constituency. We should press for more from our foreign intelligence and our defense systems, and press local, state, and federal leaders to become more serious about civil defense and emergency management.
The other thing we must do is the most important.
I once talked to a man who had a friend who'd done something that took his breath away. She was single, middle-aged and middle class, and wanted to find a child to love. She searched the orphanages of South America and took the child who was in the most trouble, sick and emotionally unwell. She took the little girl home and loved her hard, and in time the little girl grew and became strong, became in fact the kind of person who could and did help others. Twelve years later, at the girl's high school graduation, she won the award for best all-around student. She played the piano for the recessional. Now she's at college.
The man's eyes grew moist. He had just been to the graduation. "These are the things that stay God's hand," he told me. I didn't know what that meant. He explained: These are the things that keep God from letting us kill us all.
So be good. Do good. Stay his hand. And pray. When the Virgin Mary makes her visitations--she's never made so many in all of recorded history as she has in this century--she says: Pray! Pray unceasingly!
I myself don't, but I think about it a lot and sometimes pray when I think. But you don't have to be Catholic to take this advice.
Pray. Unceasingly. Take the time.
You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.
Maimonides, 12th century