Asking some timely questions Quality vs. quantity: Is more always better? How do you pass the time? How does it pass for you?


A BRILLIANT scientist once told me if we could learn to communicate with dolphins and the great whales, this would be his first question:

With such big, active, highly developed brains, which they have had for tens of millions of years -- compared with humans' hundreds of thousands -- how did they learn to survive peaceably, among themselves and with their environment?

A good question, but here is what I would ask:

How do they pass the time: And how does time pass for them?

I know how they do not pass time:

Not in traffic jams and theme park queues; nor leashed to faxes and pagers and e-mail and answering machines; nor navigating airports and scheming to buy larger houses, and spending days choosing among 55 different boom boxes for a teen-ager's birthday.

Neither do they fragment their days ever more minutely in the name of efficiency, never asking, "Efficient for whom?" Or become attuned more to the atmosphere of conference rooms than that of autumn and spring.

Maybe they just eat and mate and float; but brain tissue has such huge metabolic energy requirements, nature never profligately bestows such gobs of it as we and they, alone on this planet, have.

Whatever all that cerebral horsepower is doing, I suspect it's processing time and the environment for its cetacean possessors in ways more rich and wonderful than we imagine.

Nothing so grand as whales provokes these temporal musings, just a rare unbroken interlude devoted to nothing more productive than observing a great blue heron.

How long did I spend? Fortunately, I lost track of the hours.

The tide went from ebb to flood, the sun from high to low, the colors from blanched to saturated to shade. The hibiscus were in blossom and the breeze was southwest. It was summertime, river time, great blue heron time.

The heron mostly just sat there. Once, he cocked that long neck and marlinespike bill and darted a small fish from the shallows. As shadows encroached, he flapped leisurely, and glided to a sunnier spot to warm his spindly shanks; he began to stalk the higher marsh as the tide rose and flooded it.

The next day he would do it all over again. Soon he will soar south, returning in raw February to nest, and patrol this stretch of creek through another summer -- an extraordinary existence attuned to cycles of sun and moon, of tides and the seasons, and rhythms of the marsh.

Herons live, I have read, 12 to 15 years, maybe even 20. We think humans live four or five times as long; but human-time may not be heron-time.

I have spent whole months that seemed to pass faster than the day with the heron -- and with less fulfillment and remembrance; frenetic and fragmented, jetting about or yo-yoing between phone calls and surfing computer databases (the latter is absolutely the fastest-- and hollowest -- way to pass time that I know of).

Quantity overwhelms quality.

Someone says their kid is bright enough to skip a grade, maybe two.

But they seem happy playing with their peers, you reply.

Yes, but they need to be challenged up to their potential, says the proud parent.

And you wonder, what is really the point? To get through life and die two years faster?

More is always better, isn't it?

We now live longer than ever before. It is proof positive, I have read, that environmentalists are a crock when they claim we still are degrading the Earth.

But in studies of aboriginal peoples, past and present, the anthropologists find they spend only 15 to 20 hours a week to supply their basic needs.

Life for them was indeed shorter in years, yet leisure time was measurably longer; and one has to wonder whether years did not seem to pass more slowly and fully.

Meanwhile, we have become "human doings, rather than human beings," says Stephen Rechtschaffen, director of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, and a guru on the growing circuit of workshops for people trying to put a brake on life's swift passage.

He and other experts agree the problem is not resolved by learning to manage time more efficiently; nor is taking sporadic "timeouts" like my heron-watching more than a Band-Aid of respite.

Rather, the solutions seem to lie in how we experience time. Indeed, various leisure time studies show we have gained almost an hour of free time a day in recent decades -- yet who feels that way?

Is there a path out of this paradox? Until we can talk with the whales, I would suggest a few tentative steps.

First, simply recognize that time's flow can be degraded surely as the quality of any river; that untrammeled time is at least as nourishing to one's soul as the loveliest wilderness, and probably rarer than old-growth forests.

With respect to time, quantity does count, but pattern and form, ritual and rhythm are as critical as quantity.

We are good at picking up the rhythms of our surroundings on any number of levels -- an audience's pulse responds to the cadence of a poet, or a preacher; women sharing dorm space synchronize their menstrual cycles.

Attending to and understanding nature can give us a powerful template for repatterning our experience of time.

It need not require dropping out and moving to a mountain cabin. Erecting a plastic bird feeder outside the kitchen window is a realistic first step, or keeping a journal of the seasons as reflected in one's yard or a nearby wood lot.

Small stuff perhaps, but as Rechtschaffen says, we forget that "the bulk of life is wonderfully mundane. That's the part that matters in the long run. The rest is just a sham."

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