Time, Ownership and Distraction

In Chapter XXI of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’ eponymous character relates to his junior protégée Wormwood the peculiar attitude that humans have towards time. More specifically, he points out the strange habit we have of assuming that certain periods of the day ‘belong’ to us, and the opportunity for creating resentment that this presents to the diabolic tempters seeking to coax and manipulate human souls:

Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him…

…You must therefore zealously guard in him the curious assumption “My time is my own”. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of his property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be allowed to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

The Screwtape Letters (1981), pp.106-107, Fount Paperbacks.

            This is indeed a strange phenomenon, and perhaps only subsidiary to the greater delusion that mankind is prone to, wherein all the talents we have, all the benefits we have received in life, are somehow are own – that we are, in some sense, actually the architects and sustainers of our own being. The reality of course, is that we can neither make ourselves or the time we are given – it is all pure gift – and yet this sense of self-governance, self-sustenance, even self-creation, is a very persistent, albeit slightly absurd, idea. As Lewis/Screwtape continues:

It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.

Ibid, p.108.

How often do we lay claim to our ‘rights’ to some particular state of existence, as if it were due to us; or become frustrated because ‘my time’ was interrupted by an unexpected visitor? This can even lead to the paradoxical situation where we may be praying for an increase in charity, and then become distinctly uncharitable (not necessarily outwardly but in our hearts) when our prayers are interrupted! This latter tendency is understandable to a degree, as time with God is precious, but for the most part seems to betray a greater concern with ‘our time’ being invaded than with time lost in loving communion with the Lord.

This tendency to assume ownership of time is a problem many share, and I for one am very guilty of it. During this season of Lent therefore, I am going to try to use time set apart for prayer to remind myself of the gratuitousness of my whole existence, and try to dispel from my mind this idea that I am somehow the owner of each hour that unfurls before me. Furthermore, I hope that meditating on this particular weakness of mine will lead me to recognise just how little of the time I am given is used by me to develop my relationship with God. It is astounding how many distractions I am able to create during the course of a day, and which stop me from taking some time out to spend in prayer.

Blaise Pascal famously said that ‘the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room’ (Pensees, #139), by which he meant that we purposely fill our lives with distractions because unless we did this we would be left alone with our own thoughts, and the thoughts of man tend naturally to the ‘big questions’. We want to be distracted from all thought of God because to meditate on Him would lead us to recognise our deepest yearnings, and the changes in our lives that we would need to make to satisfy them.

We may say that we want peace and happiness, but deep down we know that only one thing can give us these – as Saint Augustine said, ‘thou hast made us for thyself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’ – and that one thing requires us giving up the short-term, this-worldly pleasures that we have become so attached to. So, instead we create diversions, distractions; we fill our lives with noise and a flurry of words and images – anything to prevent ourselves having to sit quietly in our rooms and turn our thoughts to God. The result of this tactic is not that our innate desires for things eternal go away, but that they become frustrated and emerge instead as anxiety, restlessness and ennui.

So, as well as using this Lent to flush from my mind the idea that I am lord of all I survey, time included, I am going to force myself to spend some more time alone and in quiet reflection, that the God-shaped hole in my heart may be filled ever more with the love of the One who made me, and that His love may thereby work in and through me, out into the world and the people I meet. Lent is a blessed season, as it is a time for the illusions of the self to become shattered – a painful process, but the only way in which we can give ourselves over to the true happiness and freedom that come with letting the love of God in.

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2 thoughts on “Time, Ownership and Distraction

  1. A fantastic post… once again Mike!

    Thank you for waking me up to so many blind spots I can now see in myself by your insightful understanding of human nature – in particular how we think we are “owners” of our time, space etc. Also how we often tend to fool ourselves by getting waylaid by so many “distractions” (that are often just pure time-wasters) instead of finding that special daily time for God in reflection, meditation and prayer.

    • Thank you again – you are too kind! I have to give C. S. Lewis most of the credit on this though 🙂 Just re-read The Screwtape Letters as preparation for Lent, and it is filled with acute observations re human nature such as this.

      The tendency that I focussed on above, to see ourselves as owners of time etc is one that I am always falling into though, and seemed to me to tie in to the deeper sense we have of self-possession that comes from our fallen natures. It is a recurrent problem for me I know! As is the propensity to create distractions for myself – done primarily because I know there are hard things that I have to face about myself in prayer, and I don’t want to face them!

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