On September 17, 1839, a twenty-two year old man — named Henry David Thoreau — wrote the following in his journal:
Nature never makes haste; her systems revolve at an even pace. The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity. All her operations seem separately, for the time, the single object for which all things tarry. Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were alloted for the least deed? Let him consume never so many aeons, so that he go about the meanest task well, though it be but the paring of the nails. If the setting sun seems to hurry him to improve the day while it lasts, the chants of the crickets fails not to reassure him, even-measured as of old, teaching him to take his own time henceforth forever. The wise man is restful, never restless or impatient. He each moment abides where he is, as some walkers actually rest the whole body at each step, while others never relax the muscles of the leg till the accumulated fatigue obliges them to stop short.
As the wise is not anxious that time wait for him, neither does he wait for it.
Sometimes we miss the forest for the trees; at other times we miss the trees — or the bark, the leaves, the chants of the crickets — for the forest. Sometimes we are in so much of a hurry to reach our destination that we fail to enjoy the steps we take on the pathway; at other times we are so engrossed in the individual steps that we forget where we are headed, or even why we are traveling in the first place. Sometimes we feel that time is passing too quickly and we become anxious because it seems to be leaving us behind; at other times we feel impatient because time appears not to be moving as fast as we wish it would.
“Time,” like most objects of knowledge, has both a subjective and an objective dimension. As humans, our perception of time is neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective — but some combination of the two. Objectively speaking, there are only 24 hours in a day and only 60 minutes in an hour; for each one of us, there is only one life-time to live with a definite number of years, days, hours, and minutes. Clocks tells us that time passes at a certain rate, regardless of what we feel or wish or imagine.
The subjective aspect of time, on the other hand, is equally real. The attitudes we adopt do not affect the passage of time — objectively measured — but they do expand or shrink time as it manifests in the world of our subjective experience.
How long does it take to tie one’s shoe laces or cut one’s fingernails? We may approach these tasks as if there were an unlimited amount of time at our disposal — or, in Thoreau’s words, as if an eternity had been allotted for their completion. Alternatively, we may approach these tasks as if we were already out of time, as if we didn’t have even a single moment to spare.
Whether we take the first approach or the second, the actual tying of our shoe laces or the cutting of our fingernails is probably going to take the same amount of clock time. The subjectively experienced quality of that time, however, is likely to be very different in the two cases. When we approach a task in the spirit of hastiness, we tend to perform it reluctantly, anxiously, grudgingly, for our attention is not focused on the task, but, perhaps, on what we wish to gain through it. On the other hand, when we approach a task in the spirit of eternity — as if time did not matter — the task is effectively raised to the status of an end that has its own value,that is not a means to some other end. We tie our shoe laces for the sake of tying our shoe laces. At that moment, the purpose of our life is nothing less and nothing more than tying our shoe laces.
Thoreau is not suggesting that we become lazy or ignore our larger goals; instead, he is suggesting that we act without any particular concern for time — that we perform every task deliberately, just as nature does, guided only by the task’s inherent demands.