I live in a state of chronic dissatisfaction and disillusionment, particularly when it comes to time. Is it the curse of the modern age to try to do too much? Is it just my location or life path? Have people always struggled with this?
If this constant struggle with time was a crime against anything else, I might be seen as an oddity or someone who doesn’t learn from their experiences. But as it is, this behavior is more common than not. I pack my day full of more than I know I can possibly accomplish, hoping against experience that it will work this time. I start the day discouraged, knowing I will fail but foolishly trying anyway, only to be knocked down again. It didn’t work this time. I look at everything on my list that still needs to be done and realize it will have to be moved to tomorrow. But where? That list is already full. I’ll add it to the back. Maybe I’ll succeed tomorrow. Maybe. But what went wrong today? Nothing. No delays. I wasn’t lazy. I worked hard. But tomorrow? Maybe. But probably not. It won’t fit tomorrow either. I’ll have to cancel my breaks. I’ll need those for work. And maybe then. But doubtful.
Do I plan my day, or do others plan it for me, leaving me unable to finish? Do I drive myself to this place? Why do I do this? The constant race. The race against night. Night is the enemy. Exhaustion is a bad omen. Things to run from instead of towards. Spirits that catch me when my limbs give out from under me. They falter from sheer fatigue, but when I regain my strength, I’ll run again. I’ll run from the night.
It’s a race unlike any other race. There’s no finish line. It’s a novel idea. Everyone else I meet is running it too. We race against each other so we don’t finish last. Even though there’s no finish, we run anyway, hoping that one day we’ll reach the end of this race with no finish line. No one I’ve spoken to knows what they’ll do at the end. We talk longingly about the day when we’ll finally finish this race, but we speak with disdain about those who have quit prematurely – they’re weak. But we dream. We dream about those who have supposedly reached the finish – because who can actually finish a race with no end? We’re settled in our ways. We’ve given up on our dissatisfaction and disillusionment, our shuffling of schedules and activities, our headlong sprint from the night in this endless race. What would we do if we didn’t run?
One day, I came upon a man who was walking. He was an odd man, I say this only because he was walking instead of running. I thought he might have quit. No sane man walked. I stopped – not completely, of course, because I didn’t want to fall behind – and ran in place to speak with him. I asked him why he was walking when everyone else was running. He stopped, actually stopped, and turned to look at me – he had been gazing at the flowers lining the path. I hadn’t noticed them before.
“I’m looking at the lilies,” he said, with a faraway but also very present look in his eyes. “They’re beautiful.”
But why aren’t you running?
“I’ve finished,” he said.
But where? The finish? Where is it?
“It’s where you stop running,” he said.
Of course it is! But where is the line? I don’t see it?
“It’s wherever you choose,” he replied, while leaning over to pick up a small twig and drawing a mark in front of me with it.
How can that be? It’s not official. Others have gone past and they’re still running. If I stop here, I’ll fall behind.
“You only fall behind a mark that others set, and they fall behind a mark set by someone else. There’s no finish, just a race. One day I created my own finish line, one that others didn’t set. I draw my finish line every day, and I finish every night. That’s why I walk. I’m content.”
Still running in place, I looked at him for a second, wondering why he was so different from all the others I had met and how he had come up with this unsettling idea. I started to ask him, but stopped. I realized that if I did, I would fall farther behind everyone else than I already had. I stepped over the line the man had drawn in my path and sprinted for the finish.
Ian Maclean is an orthopedic surgeon.