As another Labor Day passes, it is helpful to stop and take stock of why we pause, how we work, and why we rest. We Americans, in particular, derive a lot of value from our relationships to work. Our national mythology is wrapped up in the idea that hard work and an independent spirit are powerful enough to eliminate every other factor that might hinder our success. Our national origin story stems from the ongoing idea that we Americans are exceptional, that we are destined for glory because we determine to work at a thing until we achieve more than anyone thought possible. We pretend our work gives us control over time, and so we commit everything to work. This American Dream and our shared American stories merge to produce a red, white and blue baby who finds unlikely success because she works harder than everyone else, ignoring the deficits of her past and determined to keep moving forward, convinced that sacrificing her health now will secure her well-being down the road.
The commitment to ignore limitations as we find all value in productivity is uniquely American. Because we are convinced that our hard work will set us apart and reveal our worth, we are invested in our own upward trajectories. Time, for most of us, moves in a linear fashion, climbing upward we hope, but always moving forward. Rest then, unproductive as it is, is not valued. As a society we are invested in moving along, in facing the future, in improvement.
Time doesn’t always behave within the constraints we give it though, does it? We work hard, committed to our own narratives of ascension, only to be rejected, forced to face the same failure or insecurity over and over again. We do all the right things, marching along the straight line we planned for ourselves, only to find that a career surprise, a struggle with mental or physical health, a tragedy, or a slower-than-expected relationship reality derails the benchmarks scheduled on our linear paths. We work to heal from a would in our past, only to find ourselves panting, hearts racing, as sweat runs down our back. Panic and anxiety defy time, forcing us to relive traumatic moments or to be stuck in our current one with no clear path forward.
In much of the global east and south, time is held differently than here in America. Instead of a linear path moving in a straight line from the past into the future, time’s nature is recognized as cyclical. Time moves along, and then doubles back; the future and past are inextricably linked, identities evolving and deconstructing simultaneously. America’s insistence on forward motion can offer hope that things need not stay as they are; however, the progress of time does not erase the lived experience of the past. Instead, notions of cyclical time have a way of making space for the past to coexist with the present. The all that you have seen and known and been is very present with the all that you currently experience. Cyclical time takes away the power of chronic productivity and control by acknowledging the mystery of time and the balance discovered through rest.
This weekend, my niece turned 7, and family and friends gathered to celebrate her joyful, resilient life. It was a wild celebration of loud fun, and we were mostly fully present and grateful for her birthday. We were simultaneously swimming in grief though, because every year of her life her big brother had a birthday the day after hers. Her birthday and his are inextricably linked together, but this year he is gone and his birthday marks a terrible absence. A cavernous longing. In the same 2 days we celebrate her life and possibilities in this very moment, while also reliving so many birthdays from years’ past. Time cycles on time so that we live both the present and the past, the joy and pain, together.
The holy scriptures of the Torah speak of a God who knows that time is both linear and cyclical. Time moves, but the present can’t be fully appreciated unless it is experienced in the context of the past. Throughout the record of God’s relationship to the Israelites, God often says, “Remember this moment when you caught a glimpse of who I am and of who you are. Build something in this spot so that you won’t forget. Tell your kids about our encounter as you go about your day. Carry this day with you because it will impact your experience of every future day.” God, in these scriptures, knows that time and memory are much bigger, much more mysterious, than a simple chronological line.
In this series on the disconnect between what we tend to say is true about our existence and how we live in our existence, we must notice that our dependence on hard work, on a better deal coming tomorrow, on time marching on, severely limits our ability to embrace the wonderful mystery of life. We don’t know—on any given day—if our best days are ahead or behind. We don’t know if the moments we now wish would end will be the same we soon long for. We do know that our experience of time is never as straightforward as we have been led to believe. Instead, time marches along and loops back on itself. At times we find ourselves released to be present today with little worry to yesterday or tomorrow, while at other times we find ourselves humbly thankful that the past can still feel incredibly close, shaping our now.
Today can be new, but it doesn’t mean yesterday can’t continue in beautiful ways within us. Watching my niece blow out her candles, I experienced joy in the miracle that we get to celebrate her life in the midst of such awful sadness. Infused throughout those moments was a palpable and shared deep grief that her brother was not standing next to her, his own cake next to hers. And yet. He was there. He was present in every single heart that wrestled to make space for the joy and the sadness. The present and the past. Creating room within our cyclical realities for work and rest is important if we hope to share each other’s stories and engage our present moments, pregnant as they are with the past.
Holding on to cyclical time in a country committed to linearity is labor, indeed.