If, as people commonly say today, our brief lives are simply “the dash between the two dates on our gravestones,” what hope is there of investing that brief dash with significance? There are truths that no one can answer for us. We must each face them alone. Our own mortality is one of them. How challenging to stand and ask as Tolstoy asked himself, “What will come of my entire life? . . . Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death which awaits me?” And how terrible to come close to the end of life and have to say with
Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, “What if my whole life has been wrong?”
In short, our human challenge is to make the most of our time on earth and to know how to do it. Time and space are the warp and woof of the reality in which we live our brief lives as humans, but they are different. When Alexander the Great asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, the flinty old philosopher answered famously, “Stand out of my light!” We can occupy part of space exclusively and block someone else’s access, but no one occupies time exclusively. Time is our “commons,” the open and shared ground for all who are alive at any moment to enjoy together.
More importantly, we humans can conquer space, and we do so easily and routinely with our bulldozers, our cranes, our smart phones, our jets, and all the shiny achievements of our technological civilization. But we cannot conquer time. Time does not lie still before us like space, for it is within us as well as around us, and it is never stationary. It moves, and in one direction only—onwards and unstoppable. In the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, philosopher and rabbi, “Man transcends space, and time transcends man.”
Importantly too, the comparative ease of our conquest of the world of physical space disguises a vital fact: our conquests of space are always at the expense of using up time. We are spending our time even if we twiddle our thumbs and do nothing, and energetic activism does not solve the problem. We can build “bigger and bigger barns” or bigger and bigger empires, whether political or commercial, but there is always a day or a night when life ends, and then, as Jesus of Nazareth warned, “your soul is required of you” (Lk 12:20). Which means that the time we have spent in doing anything is the real cost and the proper key to assessing whether we have gained or lost and the effort has been worthwhile. However effortless-seeming our accomplishments, we always pay for them at the expense of our greatest challenge and the most insoluble mystery of our lives—time. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus also declared, “to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36).
Taken from Carpe Diem Redeemed by Os Guinness. Copyright (c) 2019 by Os Guinness. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. https://www.ivpress.com/carpe-diem-redeemed