Of Methusaleh and the New Year


“WHAT a lucky dog Methusaleh was! Nothing to know, and nine hundred years to learn it in!” Just now most of us would readily echo this exclamation of Lowell’s. Whatever prosperity the past year may have brought us, it leaves us with an acute sense of how much more we might have done if we had not been so hurried and driven. If there were really to be found the shop which the author of Greyson’s Letters dreamed had been opened in Fleet Street for the sale of spare time, — “ Some excellent lots of time, consisting of a week and some days each, to be immediately disposed of on the most advantageous terms,” — it would not lack customers at this period. For Londoners themselves no bargain sale at the West End department stores would compete with it in attraction, and it would do a roaring business through the mails with all parts of the world.

There is one detail of Greyson’s whimsey that suggests a practical conclusion. His imaginary shop traffics, not only in the sale of time, but in its exchange. You happen to be unusually busy at the moment, but you will have a free day a fortnight hence; another man has an excess of leisure just now, but will need to work at high pressure then. The broker’s commission of five minutes per cent is a small price to pay for the mutual benefit of a transfer. But if our trouble springs from an inconvenient distribution of time rather than from any deficiency in its sum total, why cannot we escape the difficulty ourselves, without calling in the aid of either brokerage or barter? A better considered arrangement of our plans would put an end to half the complaints that we have “ no time ” to respond to this or that urgent call. It is proverbially the busiest men to whom we turn with best hope of success when we are in need of some service that will require the expenditure of an hour or two. The explanation of this paradox is that the busiest men are as a rule the most accomplished experts in the management of time.

For it is in management — in “ economy,” in the old-fashioned sense of the word — that the problem centres. It is a question, in the main, of proportion and order. In some cases the maximum result is attained by following an exact daily programme, and this method has, at any rate, the advantage of eliminating friction. Neither thought nor time is wasted in considering what is the next thing to do. The life of Immanuel Kant was mapped out thus precisely. When he started from his house to walk eight times up and down the linden avenue, his neighbors knew that it was half-past three to the tick. Not every occupation permits such nicety of habit, and some temperaments would feel that so great a limitation of personal freedom, even though the chain were of one’s own forging, would be flatly intolerable. There must be a practicable mean somewhere between this Medo-Persian rigidity of rule and the following of the caprice of the moment. Experience will soon show us that there are certain tasks that are most effectively, and therefore most economically, performed on certain days of the week and at certain hours of the day. The writer or artist finds out after a few experiments that at certain periods his physical and mental conditions are more favorable to study and at others to production, and, if he has a fair amount of common sense, he will learn to avoid wasting upon the accumulation of his material the more precious hours during which alone the most intense intellectual activity is possible. And whether the work that occupies us is mechanical or creative, we might often husband our resources more profitably if we would make up our minds beforehand how much time we could afford to devote to particular sections of it. It was once said of Lord Leighton, to account for the attention he was able to pay to so many public duties without any slackness in the exercise of his profession, that he knew exactly how long it would take to do a certain thing, and apportioned his time accordingly.

To be really effective, such an apportionment demands a resolute concentration upon the matter in hand. It is in dawdling that we waste our time, and that not only in small fragments but in chunks and masses. Much has been said of Gladstone’s practice of rescuing for some edifying purpose the odds and ends of time left over in waiting for a meal or a train. Perhaps, however, his control of the flying hours was even more valuably exercised in his training himself to that neglect of irrelevant things which is a condition of swift action. It is said that he was accustomed to dress for dinner in less than five minutes — a curious illustration of how the power of concentration may be brought to bear upon small things as well as great. If we take longer, it is not because our fingers are clumsy, but because we have not learned the art of focusing our ideas. The biographer of Dr. R. W. Dale, of Birmingham, tells us that his “ rigid selfdenial,” his “ strenuous thrift of time,” would not have carried him through his work if he had not sedulously cultivated the faculty of commanding his whole intellectual force at will. “ Rapidity of work, within certain limits, he regarded as essential to efficiency. To spend three hours on a task that could be done in two, and well done, he held to be not only a waste of time but injurious to the mind.”

There is no little justification, then, for Martensen’s hard saying that “ ethically expressed, want of time is want of moral energy and wisdom.” If the judgment and the will accomplished their perfect work, how little room there would be for our repeated lamentations that we have “ no time ” for pursuits whose claim upon us we cannot honestly deny! The reductio ad absurdum of this attitude is the story of the British cavalry officer who had been quartered two years at Cairo but had never driven or ridden out to see the Pyramids. “ My dear fellow,” he explained to an astonished friend, “ what with polo, and parties, and cricket, and bridge, I never had a minute to myself.” It would be wholesome for many of us to use this story as a glass in which to behold our own natural face. Matthew Arnold’s indignant reply to the plea of “No time for culture,” must have touched a live nerve in many consciences. This plea, said he, “ will vanish as soon as we desire culture so much that we begin to examine seriously our present use of our time. It has often been said, and cannot be said too often: Give to any man all the time that he now wastes, not only on his vices (when he has them), but on useless business, wearisome or deteriorating amusements, trivial letter-writing, random reading, and he will have plenty of time for culture.”

So there is a touch of sentimentalism, after all, in our envy of Methusaleh, no less than in our commiseration of him when the mood changes. Perhaps his normal reflections on the lapse of time were not very different from ours. William Cowper, in a letter to John Newton, records that he had wondered how the life of the patriarchs, with its simplicity and monotony, could have been supportable. He had then proceeded to picture to himself in detail what the daily routine of antediluvian existence must have been: hunting, tilling the ground, cooking, eating, mending skins, etc.; and discovered himself at the end of this exercise able to suppose an inhabitant of the primeval world “ so much occupied as to sigh over the shortness of life, and to find, at the end of many centuries, that they had all slipped through his fingers and were passed away like a shadow.”