Some Thoughts about Time

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

This column originally appeared in The Citizen in July, 1999.

Time is money, they say, but no, it isn’t. Time is not money, and cannot be measured in the way money can.

You can earn money and spend money and keep track of money. While you may not know exactly how much money you will have at a given time in your life, you probably know whether your paycheck will cover expenses, how well your investments will do, how much a pension plan will pay — and you can amend income or reduce outgo.

Money is predictable, trackable. You know how much is in your account.

But time? Not one person on earth knows how much time he or she will have, in total. And yet, for every person on earth, for every person in history or yet to be born, time is doled out in precisely the same increments: 24 hours from midnight to midnight, 60 minutes in each of them, 60 seconds to each minute.

Whether you are Bill Gates or Bill Clinton, Billy the Kid or Billy Beckett, Bill Shakespeare or the Queen of England, the allotment of time is precisely the same.

Sixty seconds each minute, 60 minutes each hour, 24 hours each day, 365 days three years out of four.

At the risk of taking an analogy too far: both money and time can be invested and good choices may, possibly, stretch both. The investment of money may yield more money, but the investment of time will not yield more time.

And on a day by day basis, you can increase the portion of money — but not of time. While there is time, more money may be earned; when time runs out, no amount of money will buy more of it.

Our sense of time expands or contracts at different stages of our lives. You can’t mollify a raging toddler with a promise of his next meal in five minutes — that’s an eternity. A kindergartner thinks Christmas will never get here. From Monday until a Friday night date with the school hunk is forever to a yearning teen.

At the other end of the scale, the warp can go either way. I doubt that I’m the only rising senior who would vote eagerly to hold Christmas only in leap year. Yet for every Golden Anniversary couple that smiles, “It seems like only yesterday...,” there is the aging parent staring vacantly at the TV set. How long until the weekend when the family might visit?

As technology continues to enrich — or curse — our lives, we believe it gives us more time. If that were true, why would one of last week’s papers say, “Doctors have less time to spend one-on-one with patients”?

Wrong. They have exactly the same amount of time now that they had a century ago when they routinely made house calls in 5-mph horse-drawn buggies. We all have.

If each of us has the same amount of time on an hourly, daily, weekly basis, it would appear that the difference between us, then, is in how we spend it. When we say we don’t have time to volunteer at our child’s school, what we are saying is we have the time, but don’t wish to spend it that way.

I’ve lived long enough to remember the promises technology made in mid-century that the Home of the Future would virtually take care of itself; we’d have instantaneous communication and transportation. Robots and computers would take the backache out of industry. Sounds nice, we thought, but ordinary people like ourselves will never be able to afford such luxury.

Wrong again. The promises were kept, both in ways that exceeded our wildest dreams and at prices most of us can afford.

A color TV costs less now than it did 30 years ago, and delivers a stunningly more beautiful picture (content notwithstanding). A notebook computer that can slip into a student’s backpack is more powerful and worlds faster than the roomful of computers that sent a man to the moon.

Here’s my favorite: After cigarettes went to an unacceptable quarter a pack in 1955, Dave quit smoking and saved the 25 cents per day. In three years he had saved enough to buy a table saw he wanted. Last fall when the windings in the motor burned out, he deemed the saw too old to repair, so I bought him a new one for Christmas.

It is far more precise, has a larger blade than the old one, a direct drive and no belt, making it easier to tilt the blade for a beveled cut, and more safety features — all for less than half the $300 he spent 40 years ago.

The development of affordable time-saving machines in our homes and businesses surely by now should have given us several empty hours a day to loll by the pool, keep up with bestsellers, or visit with a neighbor.

Instead, we expect more of ourselves and of life. Not satisfied with modest homes like those we grew up in, we want a dream house with a nightmare mortgage requiring the second, or third, family income.

Every kid expects a car to go with her driver’s license — riding a school bus is out of the question — so time must be spent (hers or her mother’s) to buy the money that must be spent to buy the car.

Meanwhile, time is doing something odd. More new houses in more suburbs, and more commuters in more cars, mean more congestion. And for the first time in memory, it now takes more time, not less, to travel distances that have not changed at all.

We’re spending time as though there were an infinite source of it.

[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]