Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I don’t know about you, but I often have the feeling that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things I want to do, or have to do, or wish I could do so I wouldn’t have to keep thinking about not doing them. I’ve been a father of young children, and an intense commuter, and I’ve had a lot of times in my life when I really didn’t have a moment to spare. Nowadays I feel like I don’t have anything like so many pressures on my time, but I still feel like there’s not enough of it.
A week is composed of seven days with 24 hours in each, that’s 168 hours. If I spend eight hours a day in bed, that’s 56 hours, so I’m already down to 112. Working that out took a bit longer than I expected, but it’s good to know that I can still do it in my head. So what do I do with these 112 hours every week? I work, which takes up, surprisingly, about 11 hours a day, five days of the week, what with lunch and commuting and all that. I thought my commuting life was over when I got a job here after years of working over there on the other island, but it still takes nearly an hour to get from Ryde to my office in Newport every day. Perhaps it’s only roadworks and school runs, but it’s still a surprise.
They claim not to know one end of a hoover from the other
That leaves 57 hours. I do the gym thing, chiefly to keep my old bones moving and my blood flowing in my veins. That’s a good 6 hours a week, so we’re down to 51 hours. The rest, as they say, is a mystery. Shopping and cooking and eating and clearing up and cleaning the house and washing and ironing take up perhaps two hours a day on average. I regularly meet people who complain that they’d love to get fit, or read books, or take up painting, or any other sort of thing, and I usually ask them why they don’t just get on with it. They inevitably answer that they’re too busy, they have no spare time at all.
I know some people who do two jobs to make ends meet, who have several children, maybe without a partner to take up the strain, or maybe they have one of those partners who claim not to know one end of a hoover from the other. Some of them have the most horrendous list of jobs and chores to do, and I wonder how on earth they cope, or if they even sleep at all. But I’ve been there too, long ago, when my children were small and my daily journey completely insane, so I understand that.
They seem to be the happiest people I know
I also know people with this kind of lifestyle who manage to run cubs and build things, and do lots of DIY, as well as taking their kids out to the park and even writing novels. Are they stretching time in some magical way? Have they got a secret stash of substances that keep them going? No, I don’t think they do. Such people don’t usually manage to keep up with what’s on TV, and they only dream about going to the cinema, and there’s usually precious little money left over at the end of each week for going out. And they seem to be the happiest people I know.
I still have 37 hours in my week to account for. Amazingly, that’s over five hours a day. I’ll admit to spending some time in front of the TV, but definitely not five hours! Or do I? Now I’m worrying about it. Suppose there are really Pearly Gates, or a non-religious version of them, and there’s someone, not necessarily saintly, standing in front of them with a book and a checklist. This person might be interrogating everyone on the grounds of time spent usefully versus time wasted. I imagine Richard Dimbleby, or Atticus Finch, staring at me over his half-moon glasses or bow-tie, waiting for my explanation. Other interrogators may also be available, of course.
I didn’t know how lucky I was
I also know lots of people who don’t seem to have anything to do, who spend just as many hours without apparent useful or gainful employment. Some of these are unemployed, or on zero-hour contracts which actually offer zero hours of work. Some might have some sort of disability or life complication that means they really can’t work. Some are retired or just tired, and don’t have the energy. It must be a struggle sometimes to find things to fill the hours.
I haven’t been bored since I was a child, looking out of the window at the pouring rain during a long school holiday, and pestering my mother, not so much for something useful and helpful to do, but rather for her to entertain me. I am vaguely ashamed for that, but my excuse is the usual one – I was too young and I didn’t know how lucky I was. And I have been punished for it by becoming a parent myself, and suffering the exact other end of that same conversation. That’s the curse of parenthood – being reminded on a daily basis of how insufferable you were yourself as a child.
Filling the gaps between other activities
37 hours seems like a long time. It’s actually a day and a half out of every seven-day period. That’s 3/14 of a week, or nearly 20%. Funnily enough, I find it easier to do those calculations that straightforward multiplication or division. It’s probably all those years of swimming and running. I know that seven and a half minutes is 30% of a 25-minute run, and 40 lengths of a swimming pool is 5/8 of 64. However you write it down, it still seems like a lot of lost hours. And I have no idea how to account for them.
It would help if I could break down where these hours might occur. For instance, if they were all in the evening or night, or during the weekends, or perhaps they’re filling the gaps between other activities, so they can’t really be counted as anything more than empty corridors between rooms in the architecture of my life. As if my life had some kind of design to it. Perhaps it has, but I can’t seem to get far enough away from it to see anything clearly.
Just how precious is any of this time anyway?
I thought of making a list of things I do, along with an estimate of how much time I spend a week doing them. Then I thought about whether that would in itself be a waste of precious time, and I started wondering just how precious is any of this time anyway. I suppose you could set some background to that. If, for instance, you knew the world was going to end in 12 hours, what would you do? Or if you knew the exact time of your leaving, long before, would that change what you did with that time itself?
I decided a long time ago that whatever I did with my time, I would never regret a moment of it. I once made up a mantra for myself, after a particularly difficult time I just about managed to survive. It goes like this. “We all do what we feel we need to do, at the time”. For me, that contains the central understanding that we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know whether our lives could have been better, or worse. Every moment we live through contains a set of choices, none of which come with any idea of where they might lead.
With one foot poised, ready to turn one way or the other
We walk along a path, we come to a fork, there are no signs. We don’t know where either path leads, and we have to choose. Of course, we could decide to stay right there and not move ever again. Or we might want to go back down the road we just came along, except it seems to have been wiped away. So we look at the left fork and the right fork and we move our feet down one of them. We’ll never know what might have happened if we had chosen the other one.
Some people find this idea horrifying, or depressing, and some just keep walking without thinking about it. And some begin to obsess about those other paths and how much better they might have been. I grew to love that uncertainty, and to cherish those moments, with one foot poised, ready to turn one way or the other, wondering what’s up ahead.
If anything comes up, there’ll always be a bit of time to spare for it
So I don’t want to work out what happens to those 37 hours each week. I’d rather keep a sense of mystery about it, and know that if anything comes up, there’ll always be a bit of time to spare for it. And now I’ve written this, I understand better why I love stories with unresolved turnings in them, or decisions that have to be made without any preparation, or relationships that just happen, without a reason or explanation.
The secret, if there is one, is to live in that moment, in every moment, for the sake of living itself, and the understanding that every moment is precious, whatever you actually do with it.
If you have been, thank you for taking the time to read this.
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