Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Time on my hands

Posted by boakley59 on August 8, 2008

Sorry to have been gone so long. I have been writing a little, in comments and an opinion piece at the Dogtown Wire community blog, and there hasn’t been enough of me to go around to post here as well.

We had rather a long-running thread on Dogtown about religious freedom. It’s hard to imagine where we willfully misunderstand one another more than on matters of religion and freedom, unless it’s when we combine the two. One writer noted that the community is mostly similar Christians, so what’s the problem? Well, “you have eyes, but do not see,” for the question itself is the clearest demonstration of the problem. The few are so weak and inconsequential to us that we’re sure they understand: We have the power of numbers; they have to live with it.

I won’t revisit the arguments here, but read “Congress shall make no law” at Dogtown if you like. One writer in the thread asked about the community demographics, so I did a brief Internet search and found a site loaded with statistics. I summarized and presented them, prompting a comment from another writer that I had “too much time” on my hands. Therein lies a tale, and so it begins:

Once upon a time, a fellow typed five or six words into an Internet search box, scanned the first two or three results and clicked on the link to one. In perhaps another click or two, he had reached the page that tabulated religious affiliations for the county in which he lived. He quickly read the results, clicking here and there on links giving some of the definitions and methods used in compiling the statistics. He copied and pasted some of the numbers into a local file on his computer and began to compose a commentary incorporating the data.

So far, our friend had spent a few minutes in this endeavor. But our friend is a terrible snob about his writing, and “good enough” is an alien concept. His words must be clear and at least persuasive if not convincing (which none of us is guaranteed anyway, because people have eyes but will not see). He must choose his words so carefully that there can be no hint in his own thinking of the prejudices or flaws he is pointing out in the conclusions of others. This is the hardest part, because the casual prejudices or lazy reasoning, the willingness of so many to snipe without grounding or research, the raw shout from whatever sense of hurt and insignificance so many of us feel, these things make him shake in anger of his own. He thinks often that a 2-by-4 is a more appropriate tool than a keyboard for communication with such shoot-from-the-cuff types.

But he wrestles himself to calm; he self-edits away the anger and condescension and digs deep for some way to step into the other writer’s shoes and bring forth an argument from that writer’s own principles, or to take them to their illogical end and show the error of that way. And then he posts his thought for all the world to see in desperate hope that his imperfect work will nevertheless lead to better understanding. He wants people to agree with him, and he wants people to like him. If they disagree with him, he still wants them to like him, or at least to see some integrity, principle and gentleness in his thoughts. Gentleness, yes, because he works so hard to stifle all the rage and the savage within him. He recognizes it and even takes strength from it, but it cannot govern him.

Our writing snob has now wrestled with savage humanity (of one and of all) for perhaps two hours. He has managed to present six paragraphs for the world to digest. Then, the first response is, “Too much time on your hands.”

So much for our tale. Now for some analysis.

I submit that finding and then summarizing a couple of Web pages of statistics in six paragraphs is not by itself evidence of very much time spent. Indeed, without imagining the writing demons I wrestle with, how could anyone think it would take so long to write six paragraphs? My conclusions were clear and the statistics analyzed within moments of completing the search; what took time was weeding out my own lifetime of counterproductive prejudices and emotions.

Perhaps someone who doesn’t write well or naturally might think that surely six such paragraphs couldn’t have been done off the top of the head. In fact they were. And then they were edited and studied and scrubbed trying to avoid meanness. I suggest that is time spent with my own insecurities, not really with the task at hand.

As with many such things, the reality is complicated. I did spend more time than one would think on six paragraphs. But it wasn’t because the ideas were hard or complex or beautiful; it was because I am an idealist, a perfectionist, and somewhere deep within, a savage. I used to have that all under better control and could write better and faster. I have fallen a bit out of practice over the years, and I am slowly recovering my speed and control.

But the time on my hands, oh, the time on my hands!

The reason I write comments on blogs at all is because now I have time on my hands. I left work from my illness in May 2007. I have been homebound since, and I typically can handle one burst of activity a day, whatever that might mean. I can mow the grass (front or back, not both) or box up some books, maybe take a 20-minute walk or write a small computer utility program to make Suzy’s work easier. I can sit for a time to read online, and if I don’t get too emotional about it, I can write something. But I burn a lot of calories just pondering things, particularly if I feel strongly about them. Anger and dismay take a lot out of me, apparently because of my immune system’s response to stress hormones.

I have time on my hands because I no longer have the ordinary obligations of a working stiff in today’s America. I have time on my hands because I am no longer of reliable use with my hands. If I cannot share my thoughts and experiences, I am just a recycling tank.

I took an interest in Dogtown Wire because a new friend was its first editor. He is a committed and idealistic journalist but new to the profession. I offered as much advice from my 30 years in the field as I could. I watched the commentary because the thoughtless gunslinger kind could poison the whole enterprise and defeat the community-building purpose. I wanted to help, to guide, to be useful.

At one time, I would have read such comments and figured it was up to someone else to open eyes; I needed to get to work or play with my son or spend time with my wife. We could discuss the points: “I read this gripe on the Web today …,” but I would share the lesson with my family, not the source. Now, I have time on my hands and no excuse to let these things slide. I spent a lot of time in Catholic schools learning about the ideals and principles of an Old World Savior and a New World dreamland, and though I have since taken a road less traveled, that background informs my every step. When I see ideals and principles cast aside, ignored or forgotten, I must rise and say, “But don’t you see the danger?”

Yes, I have too much time, but it is hard time. I say I have no excuse to let things slide, yet I must be careful not to overdo, even with what should be so simple a thing as writing. I am wired to go at everything as hard as I can, and it is a constant battle to avoid careening out of control.

Again I say, I do have too much time. I have no clear demands on my hours; I can spend long minutes distilling 40 years of contemplation of religious freedom (should anyone pondering the eternals really believe it possible to spend “too much time” reflecting on religious freedom?); my thoughts and writings are filled with lessons from all my days, shaped by and expressing my lifetime. I am full of time.

But here’s the kick in the teeth: The reason I have too much time is paradoxical, for it is that my time is running out. No, I don’t think I’m going to die in the next couple of days or even in the next couple of years, though neither would be so surprising as once it might have seemed. And I am not enfeebled of mind as my father was for his last 15 years, nor am I in the deep, unspoken pain that Suzy’s father endured for so long. But I am left with only a voice and the thoughts and dreams it may convey.

So, I will spend my time in the glow of old times trying to shed light on new times. I will share what I know and feel with those who will listen, and I will love those close to me as best I can. I will feed the dogs and cut the grass if I can; I will thank my wife every day; I will go to sleep and hope to do it all again tomorrow.

Oh, it is so true that I have “too much time,” but in sharing it with you I don’t think I’m wasting an instant.

Until next time …


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