February 28, 2018

A Brief Essay on Time

…on advocacy and heartbreak…

Time passes differently for the privileged than for the neglected.

For “the poor”, time is measured in packages of effort devoted to survival, the time it takes to earn your rent, the hourly wage, overtime (if you are lucky), the time it takes to scrounge up a meal.

And waiting. The wait at the grocery store, the wait at the clinic, the wait in the emergency room, the wait for a raise, the wait for the bus, the wait for change. The wait for a room you can afford, for the prison term to end, for the class to open up ….of all the struggles of the poor, boredom is the least understood. Poverty is monotonous. It dictates that time will move in a slow herky-jerky circular path, wrapping around and around each day, choking the life out of living.

The wealthy buy time for activities they want to do. To pursue interests, to explore pleasures of the mind, body and spirit. Of all they have, what is most enviable is their ability to purchase discovery and learning — intellectual time. Time that moves in waves of excitement, a life with an evolving plot, twisting and turning on the imagination of the main character. Of course, wealth will not compensate for lack of imagination, and money cannot buy vision. But struggle and monotony will strangle the life right out of a dream.

We construct our lives around our beliefs about time — and its legitimate and necessary uses.

Every profession has its own ruler for time. Archeologists measure in thousands of years, historians in decades, politicians in terms of office, physicians in hours and days. Each profession creates a ruler for time — by breaking it into relevant segments: How long between ice ages? How many years of a presidency? How many days to live? Segments in which a relevant change might occur.

Time haunts those of us working to nurture the world into a more caring place. Time rules us as we work for fairness, justice and kindness.

Community developers and social justice advocates measure time in life stages, in family and developmental time. As advocates, we must stay present to the suffering and struggles of neighbors who measure time in hours. The time since I last ate. The time since I last saw my mother. The time since I last worked. Physiological and psychological time. Fragments of life filled with pain or joy, loneliness or affection, hunger or satisfaction. These bits and pieces are the small tiles, cemented together, that make up a lifetime.

In contrast, resources are allocated to our work in political cycles, years of public awareness, policy development, legislative action, service delivery. What makes our work so excruciating is that solutions are products of political and societal changes, measured in years or decades, while pain continues to erupt daily.

Our schools are filled with adolescents who suffer acutely from isolation, self-consciousness, and loneliness. They fill their hours feverishly seeking acceptance and visibility. Their hunger fuels their emotional clock which says this one unbearable moment of rejection will go on forever. The bullies will always win. I will always be left out. Their sense of time is collapsed. Lunchtime lasts forever.

While our adolescents tough it out in school cafeterias, our elderly neighbors exist in monotonous neglect, invisible to everyone. Our elders, who know the value of a life, know that middle school is a but a moment, know what is worth fighting for and what is not, sit alone with decades of experience and no one to share it with. We need a wrinkle in time that will bring these generations together. A wrinkle that brings us all together.

Decades have passed since I first opened my mouth to speak the truth about immigrants and the train wreck that is our immigration system. We have created a system of emotional torture with no relief in sight. Impenetrable, unnavigable — a source of lifelong grief for millions of families. I remember when I thought it was just a matter of explaining it better. At some point I came to understand that we weren’t going to fix the broken system, not because policy makers didn’t understand that it was flawed, or because they didn’t know how much pain it caused. They aren’t going to fix it because those in power are not present to the pain that fills days. They are determined not to be. It’s not their pain. Immigration is much too handy to politically exploit and too dangerous to honestly address. A lot like guns. Even when 60% of Americans agree and people are suffering and dying, there is no alignment between the length of heartbreak and a term of office.

If we care deeply about alleviating unnecessary human suffering, we find ourselves stretched on a rack between a painful “now” and a hopeful “when.” I’ve come to believe that the real test of leadership is the ability to live there — in between — never letting go.

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