To many students like myself, mid-July feels like this: “I can’t believe school starts in only a month—I haven’t done enough summery things yet.” There’s a nagging sense of regret even in the present that maybe we could do more to optimize our time. Maybe it’s FOMO, the fear of missing out, or, perhaps, the fear of wasting time. Summer is a long-anticipated golden calf in my head, carved deep with endless vacations and immediate suntans and condensating glasses of Kool-Aid. Not a moment of this empyrean season should go to waste.
And so waste becomes the object of frenzied anxiety. Because summertime is finite, I must figure out how not to waste it. Occasionally, a Gandhi-type quote arises: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow.” There’s so much to do on the earth–where to begin? Go swimming and running and helping and hiking. Hiking seems like a solid use of time, especially if there’s a worship song to hum at the overlook. Even the most glorious Blue Ridge view, however, can’t always sweep away the anxiety that my time might be better optimized elsewhere, or, at the very least that I could be doing more. Beyond summer activity debacles, optimization anxiety arises in daily cycles: Am I sleeping the optimal number of hours? Am I exercising the optimal amount per day? Am I making the optimal amount of money per hour? All these questions arise from the fear that I’m not reaching my full potential in any given situation. In the latest issue of The Mockingbird, available here, editor Ethan Richardson challenges: “What if we were freed from viewing our life exclusively in light of its potential?” When we operate under the pressure of “one day realizing our full potential,” we imagine that if we optimize our time, we might fight our way through the February-cold night of the now and reach some ideal summer of relaxation in the future.
In Gravity and Grace, the philosopher Simone Weil discusses the idea of renouncing these idealized notions of past and future, writing that “past and future hinder the wholesome effect of affliction….” She insists that there’s value in affliction. The fear of wasting time now shouldn’t be ignored for the dream of a season of optimization in the future. She wants us to consider this very moment, to look honestly at the now, wherein likely there is some trace of affliction, which might even manifest itself in the anxiety of wasted time.
Last year a friend introduced me to the music of London Grammar, a UK-based band that combines ethereal electronics with killer vocals. They recently won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Lyrically and Musically for “Strong,” a song which cries out: “Man seems so strong—man speaks so long—I’ve never been so wrong….” Their simple but resonant observations on the human condition remind me of Ecclesiastes, carving out a grace-shaped hole in the face of fallen humanity.
While wasting time on YouTube, I came across the official music video for their single: “Wasting My Young Years”—the inspiration for this post. The video portrays young people suspended in midair, inactive, flipped upside down or sideways, while Hannah Reid, the lead singer, cries: “I’m wasting my young years—maybe we are….” As the tempo picks up, I can’t tell if the song maintains its melancholic tone or becomes somehow triumphant. Give it a listen.
And I love that the song employs the present tense: I’m wasting, not I wasted. I still am. The Apostle Paul admonishes the early church in Ephesus to live wisely, “making the most of the day” (5.16). He helpfully identifies wisdom as good and time-wasting as bad, but ultimately these things remain beyond our control; frankly, I’m not wise enough to know whether or not I’m wasting my young years.
My last year of college spans ahead, and sure, I want to make the most of it. And for a lot of my friends, we consider this the end of our lengthy summer vacations, which we’ve enjoyed since kindergarten. It feels like the ending of days, but I have a feeling this type of anxiety won’t subside after graduation: I’ll want to make the most of the weekends, the vacations, and ultimately, as Paul encourages, each day as its given. The fear of wasting time remains inevitable, a sort of persistent, resonant affliction. Simone Weil, crazy as she was, saw immense value in perpetual affliction:
When pain and weariness reach the point of causing a sense of perpetuity to be born in the soul, through contemplating this perpetuity with acceptance and love, we are snatched away into eternity.