The Myth of Quality Time

_MG_0169About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Living the Hyperopic Life.   It was a dissertation on the ideas of balance, living for now, living on purpose and making sure, when you looked back at the end, you are certain in your heart that it was a life well-lived.  One part dealt with taking time and making it worth something.   Blocks of time, snippets of time, anything you could carve out between the important things and responsibilities you had.   These little bits of time, strung together, would weave the tapestry of your life.  The more meaningful the time spent, the tighter the weave.

If you could paint a picture of this tapestry, it would not be pretty.  It isn’t one of those neatly woven, ornate fabrics you see in stores.  The resemblance is more like a rag but with different kinds of thread and materials all woven together in a tangle of structure.  It has every color you could imagine (if you do it right) and all manner of materials; smooth velvets,  tough, yet solid and comforting denims, whimsical tassels, maybe even a few bits of aluminum foil here and there or splinters of wood stuck in the folds; whatever you fancy in your imagination could represent  whatever it is you did to create it.  This is your life and you add to that tapestry each time you took hold of and lived your life on purpose.

That’s what it should look like.   But take a moment to consider what all these bits and pieces of time mean?  Where are they and by what measure do you define them?

Every so often you’ll hear the phrase Quality Time.   The basic premise of this idea, as I understand it, is that if you do something really splendid with someone you care about, the time spent can be labeled Quality Time and that particular block of time will be worth more time than it actually took.  Bank enough Quality Time and you’ve got a whole lifetime in no time at all.   It seems that Quality Time evolved as people worked longer hours, both parents had to work or someone decided to work a whole lot now, so they could enjoy themselves later.  Quality Time gave permission to spend less time with  those people you really should be spending time with so you had more time to do the things you really wanted to do.   More me time, maybe?    Suddenly, there’s more time to chase the money, work late hours, disregard the children, take a vacation  and leave the kids at home (don’t get me started with that last one.)

I do not presume to know how people work out their lives.   Everyone has their own way of doing things and their own interpretation of what makes good time spent.  Who am I to tell them what to do and never would I presume to do that.   Each of us is different and if it’s really working for you, don’t stop.   Because it’s rare that we find that butter zone of being able to make it all work out right and it’s always good policy to ride that mellow when you find it.

A person has to be honest with themselves, though, in assessing whether it’s working or not.  You have to say it’s fat when it’s fat and don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s muscle.   Without that naked honesty, you won’t see if there’s something wrong or if you’re making excuses by using Quality Time as permission to neglect those people who should be occupying important moments in your life.

All the time you spend with someone has the same length and you can’t compress it like calories are compressed into high fructose corn syrup, sweetening the time you do with the hope of making it better somehow.  Time does not distill.  What matters is what you fill it with and how.  Whether you’re winging off to London to do the Europe thing or sitting at the kitchen bar telling them it’s OK to draw outside the lines if they want, the minutes are 60 seconds long and the days have 1440 minutes.  All day long.  You’re there, present either way, and that’s where the value is.

It seems to me, more often than not, Quality Time is what people use as an excuse not to do the little things.  “Oh, I spent some quality time earlier with Bill watching a movie so I’m going golfing with my buddies now.”  Quality Time is  a myth.  It’s cheating.

I truly believe it’s not Quality Time you want to shoot for, but time.  Just time.  If a particular moment  only lasts 20 minutes doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing or even a great thing. Maybe it lasts an hour and during that hour you only did a few things that didn’t amount to much.  Where was the focus?   On just the two of you?  Sounds to me like that’s all the quality you might need.  The world moves pretty fast these days.   Two minutes or two hours can really be just the same in terms of value as long as the focus has the purity of you wanting to be there and joy in just paying attention to each other.

Have you seen that movie, City of Angels, with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan?  Earlier in the movie Meg Ryan’s character had been frustrated by the fact that she and her doctor-boyfriend didn’t spend any real time together.  In one later scene, he comes into the locker room at the hospital and sits down opposite Ryan on a bench.   He stares meaningfully into her eyes and is silent.   She looks at him suspiciously and then asks “what are you doing?” and he replies, “I’m spending time with you.”   It’s a joke really.  Here he was trying to manufacture Quality Time.  Is the time you spend with people you care about like that?   An exercise out of a book or something you do out of obligation?   Pardon me for saying so, but if that’s the case, you’re doing it wrong.

Did you turn away from the tourist attraction and taste the light breeze that brings the scent of the ocean off Sydney Harbor?  Do you fully appreciate the serendipitous turn you took down a narrow alley that brought you to the tavern with the best bangers and mash you’d ever had (once you figured out what the hell bangers and mash were?)  Did you take a breath and recognize the fantastically special moment you just shared together whatever it may have been?

It’s this nuanced kind of existence that fills in all the little chinks and cracks that may otherwise undermine a good well-lived life.  And if you’ll forgive me the mixed metaphor, it’s this kind of living which creates the many-textured, multi-colored tapestry that is only best when it’s one of the ugliest things we’ve ever seen.  Pausing to hear the humming in the other room of a known or made up tune;  Listening to your son when he says, “I finally got the definition I wanted.”  Even if you ask, “In your life?” and he responds “No, in my arm muscles,” you get it and smile right at him.  He may not show it, but he’s paying attention and will always remember that.

We went to Hawaii this year on a very rare and special family vacation (the best kind.  It would not be the same if we went all the time.)  We tasted tropical delights, saw sunsets that made our hearts ache, swam with dolphins, giant sea turtles and the vast Pacific Ocean seeing tropical fish of any color you could imagine … It was fantastic.   A few months later, I asked my eldest son what the best part of the summer was.  I fully expected that rare kind of family vacation to be the answer.   But to my surprise and delight, he proclaimed it to be the building of a wooden airplane with grandpa.  Time.

The folks who are relying on the Myth of Quality Time as a measure of their parenting, brotherhood,           sisterhood, whatever-hood are missing it.   If we leave out the fun and the completeness of participating to the fullest in the lives of the people we care about, we’re straining and stretching the connections we as humans thrive on.  Those connections become more  gossamer and fragile; more vulnerable to any slight or misunderstanding.

It takes practice to get better at anything.   They say to master something you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it.  So, start with 10,000 minutes (about a week) of practice and maybe get in a really good minute.  Then go for two.  And suddenly, as you spend your lives together you may build such great emotional muscles and such a strong bond that the practice required starts to fall away and you have the well-trained, fine-tuned relationship you know you should.

Talking or being quiet.  Riding in the car to music lessons, celebrating an essay well-written, an song well-played, a joke that went over well with new friends in school.  All of it matters as much as – or perhaps more than – those big trips and expensive gifts.

Finally, consider music.  If you think about it, there is no music without the space between the notes.   Some would say music is the space between the notes.  So, too, is time.  Quality Time is not the big stuff.  It is the silence between the notes, the nuance of the phrasing in the music that is our lives.  Because although the notes themselves are great (trips and adventures), when the music stops, silence is all you have and then you need to be able to fill that silence (or not) with your thoughts and dreams and desires and hopes or whatever comes to mind.

What does your tapestry look like so far and how does the music it makes sound?

A Question of Faith

Steve is a boy of six. He is a nice boy by all accounts and isn’t one to get into trouble. I don’t know him. I just know someone who does. But who he is isn’t important. What happened is.

It was after school on a typical Spring afternoon. Steve was finishing up his day and getting ready to go. Looking at the clock he realized it was later than he’d thought. He was going to miss his bus, so he darted out of the school toward the bus loop. Just as he arrived, he saw his bus pulling out of the parking lot. Worry stole over him because he knew his mother would be mad if he was late coming home. She might even be mad he’d missed the bus even if it was an honest mistake.

His only alternative was to get home on foot and get there fast. So he took off running heading for the corner at the end of the street. All he could think about was that he was late. Plus he didn’t want to get in trouble, so he dashed into the street. At the same time, a pickup truck was turning onto the same street. Steve was struck and dragged under the truck for thirty feet.

Thankfully, Steve is fine. He spent a few weeks in the hospital and there was concern there would be nerve damage in his pelvic region, but there’s not. I have heard nothing else, but the indication last I did hear was that he would make a full recovery. What a great thing the human body. How incredible it is the power it has to heal itself when those on the outside think it can’t.

During his hospital stay and when things were touch and go, a lot of people began to wonder why or how this could happen. And then someone said something that struck me as a little bit odd. Referring to the news that Steve would be OK and would recover, he said “Someone was looking out for him.” Being a fairly religious person, obviously, he meant that someone to be God.

But I suddenly found myself perplexed. If someone was looking out for him, where was that someone when the driver was picking up his keys? Couldn’t He have made the driver drop his keys, or forget where he put them? It would have only needed to be a few seconds of delay. Couldn’t He have created a confusion that caused the driver to return to the house to check the stove. Something subtle. Or remember something else he needed to bring? Why look after Steve *after* he’d be rendered nearly dead? And if subtlty wasn’t necessary, maybe just stop the truck cold a few feet from Steve, the front end crumpling against an unseen force.

It was such a strange thing to me. To hear someone say this and feeling, knowing, that I completely didn’t buy that thought process. That little boy got very badly hurt and no matter how you look at it, it was not at all good. It was a bad thing. Very bad, and no good can come out of it (other than Steve thanking his lucky stars when, later, having more wisdom he can reflect on how lucky he was.) And I also think no one healed Steve but Steve. He wasn’t done coloring. He wasn’t done riding his bike and he wasn’t done dreaming about playing football for the Broncos. Steve deep down was watching out for himself and Steve repaired Steve. That’s what I think.

The next week, more news came of recovery and someone told of speculation by one of Steve’s relatives that the mother was being punished because Steve had been “unplanned” and she didn’t treat him very well. She loved him, but with a young son like that when she thought “she was done”, it was posited that maybe she felt trapped. Who knows, I don’t even know the whole of any part of their lives or story, let alone the inner workings of Steve’s mother’s mind. So I am more speculating than not and simply rummaging around in my own mind to reconcile something unreconcilable. I don’t judge anything…just wonder.

But it was shocking that the conjecture was that Steve was some pawn in a scheme to get the mother to straighten up and fly right. How can this be? Who would use an innocent six-year-old to teach some mother a lesson? That’s just sick!

I asked a friend about this dilemna and she said it’s important to have faith that all things happen for a reason. And in that faith, the reason doesn’t need to be presented immediately or ever. Some might say horrible events like this are tests of faith. Maybe. But it still doesn’t sit well. And I may never know, but I do know all things are connected. Thinking in a vacuum can be a sketchy proposition. It seems folly to just look at a single event and say it happened on it’s own as a singularity. Time is not made up of discrete parts that can be broken up and held out on their own. It is a smooth ribbon of events all flowing into each other. Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It just doesn’t. If it’s thought to, reasons tend to get overlaid upon tragic events that don’t make sense in the continuum of time and logic. And for various reasons mostly psychological and based on my own life experiences, I tend to ask a lot of questions and continually evaluate what I’m looking at to make sure I am seeing it as it truly is. Call it situational awareness, to use the vernacular of aviation.

A friend died when some moron flew his plane into the Pentagon and my brother died when I was four due to a hill, a truck and a faulty or unset parking break. No one has ever been able to tell me why. Because sometimes there is no reason. We are not actually bullet proof and ten feet tall, things just are and sometimes those things just suck.

Whether you call it fate, faith, belief, accepting, putting it on His hands, Karma or whatever else, for me (and this is my thought and mine alone), I prefer reasons and processes and cause and effect relationships whenever I can get ’em. Even if they amount to life just handing me a steaming pile. Some would actually call that faith. So I guess that’s my faith and I will ask questions of everything to understand better.

I suppose all of the explaining and reasoning and rationalization is just a way for us to feel like we’re in control or someone’s at the helm (even if it’s only our own self-conscious.) Because if no one’s driving this train, where’s it going and what, by the way, I am doing on it?