Yesterday I came across a beautiful New York Times article called Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss by Chris Huntington, which made me reflect on my own anxieties about the amount of time available to us in life to find happiness. It is well worth reading it in full.
Huntington, a Singapore-based author, talks about what he learned through his work in prisons, as a teacher, regarding how we measure time. On being asked by Huntington to reset a clock, an inmate laughs:
“A few minutes off? We need one that goes by months and years. What do we care about five minutes?”
A convicted rapist, who has already served 16 years, with at least 8 more years to go, talks of his limited prospects for the future:
“There are some things I’m never going to do. And I can spend my life being mad about that, or I can try something else.” […]
“I decided to be the best prisoner I could be.”
Huntington, who overcame depression following his divorce, fell in love in again, re-married and now has an adopted Ethiopian son he adores, is aware that for everything he gained in life, there was also something else not fulfilled: “Our story, so full of love, is also full of loss.” Yet, he concludes:
It doesn’t matter what time it is. Think in months. Years. Someone loves you. Where are you going? There are some things you will never do. It doesn’t matter. There is no rush.
We all moan about lost opportunities in our lives and how much time we have “wasted” in an unhappy relationship, a badly chosen career, etc. We are angry because we feel life is short, and the time frame within which certain key events we believe to be conducive to happiness should happen, such as finding your soulmate, getting married, having children, is restricted.
The other evening I read a post written by one of my younger followers, in her 20s, complaining that she has been single for too long. Below the post, one commenter had written that in the time it took her to recover from one relationship, another friend had got married, popped out a kid, got divorced and found a new man. How did these people do it?!
I had to laugh. While for some people love and relationships happen faster and more frequently than they change their dirty knickers, for others, finding one special man or woman can be like watching paint dry. It could be that the Speedy Gonzalezes of Love are less picky and more aggressive in their pursuits, or it could be sheer luck.
Unfortunately, we have the habit of setting timers to when things should happen. How long is it acceptable for one to remain single?
That is why chronic singledom makes for an excellent topic for jokes at dinner parties while you’re young, but once you get past the age of eligibility, that is, when you turn into an overripe fruit, it stops being so amusing to become a sign of grave social ineptitude.
When every social function from dinners and parties to weddings and funerals seem to be tailored for couples, being single can feel as awkward and embarrassing as having halitosis. But it shouldn’t do.
Cougars and desperados
Because popular belief is that the best opportunities in life are linked to youth, single people over 40, for example, tend to feel this way:
- You are invisible in the dating scene; who wants to date a middle-aged man/woman?
- Most people in your age bracket are already married or otherwise taken; those who are still single must have something seriously wrong with them.
- Your biological clock has practically stopped ticking, so your chances of starting a family, even if you find your ideal partner, are greatly reduced.
- If you do meet the love of your life, chances are they will have kids from a previous relationship. You will have to be step parent to them and, if you have kids yourself too, blend the two families together.
- It is too late for love…actually.
Women feel particularly disadvantaged because few men, given the choice, go for older women. Biologically, that could be governed by their instinctive need to procreate, so the younger = the more fertile. Younger women also constitute a more valuable trophy for them to show off to other males, especially if they are past their prime themselves (the message being ‘I can still pull!’). And when a young man goes for an older woman, it is generally perceived he is only after her ‘experience’, but he will eventually dump the ‘cougar’ and use the acquired experience on a young chick instead.
With prospects of finding love being so poor for the more mature woman,
every year, every month, every week and day even that goes by without a sign of romance can seem like another huge shovelful of sand going down the past-the-use-by-date hourglass. That is why so many older women sadly become ‘desperado’ and seem to latch on to anything in pants that moves at every social gathering they attend.
The Fruits of Self-love
I have had my moments of “it is too late” myself. One of my biggest regrets is that I did not choose to have children when my body was wanting to, in my early 30s. But I was with the wrong man then, and any child conceived under those circumstances would have had to pay a price for my selfishness.
Now, separated and childless, and not exactly a spring chicken any more, I could easily go down the desperado route. Except I am not ‘desperate’ for anything.
Being single to me does not feel like ‘lack’ at all, nor do I feel too old for romance. On the contrary, since I’ve become solo, I have literally reverted into an impish teenager full of mischief and see naughtiness everywhere; for the first time in my life I am also happy with my body image; and I feel more lovable and desirable than I ever was within a relationship. All this was the result of making peace with myself, finding self-love and self-respect at last.
I too want to be “the best prisoner I can be”, where “prison” would be however much time I have got left in my own life.
It may not be life as envisaged by a 25-year-old: whirlwind romance with a young lad, proposal, marriage in bridal gowns, children, grandchildren. The fairy tale stuff may make a great John Lewis commercial, but who said that is my formula for happiness? Just because society dictates that’s what we should aspire to, it does not mean it works for everyone. I am not everyone. I am unique; you are unique.
With the time I have got left, which could be as short as a few hours in case I die in my sleep tonight, I only have one main goal, and that is to live life being 100% true to myself.
- I have learned to stop creating “what if” scenarios and take one day at a time;
- I no longer write story boards in my head before dates and try to act them out;
- I follow my gut instinct, always;
- I smile and laugh a lot because I have so much love to give;
- I ask people lots of questions about them because understanding people makes me understand human nature better;
- I praise lavishly because I like to make people feel good about themselves and proud of who they are;
- I express affection openly and generously to people I care about. I can’t tell them I love them from my grave.
Time for everything
Exactly two months ago one of my closest friends passed away at the age of 51, barely five months after being diagnosed with an incurable disease. He always thought he’d live well into this 90s. While sorting out his wardrobe after the funeral, his widow said, in tears:
“Peter had so many nice clothes, shoes and things he had bought and was saving ‘for a special occasion’. What a waste; there won’t be any more occasions now. Now I know there’s no point in holding anything off for a future that may not come.”
Someone once told me, “Don’t worry; in life there’s time for everything”. It seems hardly applicable to my now deceased friend, robbed of at least four more decades of life he thought were his.
But perhaps life is not supposed to be like a novel with a beginning, middle and end structure. That is only our perception of time in the dimension we inhabit. But there might be other dimensions out there where linear time does not exist. Maybe life does not end with physical death but goes on and on in a loop?
My view is that life is supposed to be just this: this very moment. The future is an illusion: when you reach the next moment, the future becomes your present. Our problem is that we live with half our minds regretting the past and the other half worrying about things that may or may not happen.
The only “waste” there is in life is the time we waste forgetting to live and love in the now. We had better use our time wisely and love as abundantly as we can.