Last weekend Thom and I watched a movie on HBO entitled, “In Time.” I don’t recall seeing it in local theaters, probably because its ratings were average and the lead actor was Justin Timberlake. But with a sci-fi theme and on a hot summer evening, we decided to give the movie a chance. Surprisingly enough, it was not only entertaining, but it raised some very provocative questions that have stayed with me all week. Questions like: What lengths will people go to in order to try to live forever? Why do most people say they want to live forever, but often live lives of quiet desperation and routine? Is “living” merely taking another breath or is it something more?
In case you’re interested, “In Time” is a movie where genetic alteration has allowed humanity to stop aging at 25. People are then given one more year of “living time.” “Living time”, can be transferred among individuals on body-contact, and is displayed on a clock implanted in people’s forearms. When that clock reaches zero, one dies instantly. Meanwhile, society is divided into social classes living in specialized towns called ‘Time Zones’. Much like our present society, the poor live in ghetto time zones where youth predominates, and everyone must work hard each day to earn a few more hours of life. Everyone uses time (just like we use money) to pay for everyday necessities, because in the movie time IS money. The (time) rich live in the luxurious New Greenwich with every advantage. And while everyone there is mostly middle aged or older, they look young because have stopped aging at 25 years old.
In the movie the poor, without the resources to buy more time, live life fast and frantically. Once they hit 25 their focus is all about survival—for themselves and others they love. On the other hand, those who are rich have the luxury of endless time. It is considered a sign of wealth to move slowly and cautiously. By living slowly and carefully, those rich in time can technically live forever. By the end of the story it is obvious that although the rich have decades of time, they don’t enjoy life any more than the poor because they are always trying to keep what they have or get more. They also realize they must repress the majority of people in the poorer time zones to protect their interests. Their excessive focus on controlling time has kept them from living life as well.
So what does this movie’s theme mean to you and me? To begin with, it makes us remember that time is mainly a perception. In fact, many scientists are still attempting to define it and how it applies to the Universe. (For more details go here.) And although clocks measure the clicks that occur within a certain day, and birthdays remind us of the number of times the earth has circled the sun during our lifetime—time is illusionary.
Plus, according to Daniel Kahneman in his book, “Thinking Fast & Slow” our lives are basically “stories” and, “A story is about significant events and memorable moments, not about time passing.” He goes on to say, “In storytelling mode, an episode is represented by a few critical moments, especially the beginning, the peak and the end. Duration is neglected.” So, as story-telling beings, a good story is much more important than how long it lasts. To support his statement Kahneman offers vivid examples that show that humans consistently prefer quality experiences over a quantity of experiences. In addition, research shows that experiences that require “active” participation not only appear to be shorter (with time passing quickly)—active experiences are also usually remembered much more pleasantly. As most of us know, passive or painful activities seem to drag by at the pace of a snail. Given a hypothetical choice, humans will consistently choose a shorter happier life over a longer slightly unpleasant one.
But that’s where it gets tricky. If most of us would “hypothetically” choose a slightly shorter happier life over one that is less happy but longer—then why do some of us often cling to painful and decrepit lives as we near the end? Or why do we devote so much time, money and energy prolonging our physical appearance with the hope of somehow fooling nature into thinking we can avoid dying? Or why are many of us obsessed with the hope of living forever when some lives are largely spent working, paying bills and watching TV?
While those questions deserve more examination than this short article can offer, it likely has to do with being afraid of both living life outside the norm—and the fear and uncertainty of death. A good perspective is offered by the young woman hero in the movie, Sylvia Weis who says to her wealthy time-rich father, “The clock is good for no one. The poor die and the rich don’t live. We can all live forever so long as we don’t do anything foolish. Doesn’t that scare you? That maybe you’ll never do anything foolish or courageous or anything worth a damn?”
From another perspective, the movie demonstrates how many people in our present culture treat money and wealth in the same way the people in the movie treat time. Those in poverty do whatever they need to do to survive and seldom do more than try and get through another day. Those in the upper 1% spend a large portion of their time trying to hang on to what they have and keep others from taking it away. The vast majority of people in the middle spend a huge chunk of their lives working at jobs they dislike to make money to buy stuff they don’t really need to impress people they often don’t know or even like very much. And behind it all is the hope that they can eventually retire and enjoy life and do all the things they couldn’t do while they were slaving at those jobs. But also like in the movie, the price of items keep rising, keeping everyone in servitude to the machine, and by the time most people retire they are too worn out and tired to do much more than stare at a television. And we call that living.
In the movie the young heroine Sylvia Weis objects to the immortality and time wealth of her family and the servitude of most people to an unnatural system. She says, “We’re not meant to live like this. We’re not meant to live forever. Although I do wonder, father, if you’ve ever lived a day in your life.” Yet her father, even when confronted with the end of his dominance over time, answers by saying, “…don’t fool yourself. In the end nothing will change because everyone wants to live forever. They all think they have a chance at immortality, even if the evidence is against it. They all think they will be the exception.”
He’s right. Most people seemed much more focused on how long they will live rather than the quality of their living. But remember, living long does not necessarily mean that the story of your life will be a good one. Instead of spending enormous amounts of energy, time and money trying to prolong life—perhaps it would be wise to instead focus on learning and incorporating those things that make life go SMART—sustainable, meaningful, artful, responsible and thankful.
Of course we should all still do our best to take care of ourselves. Eating well, exercising and doing things to ensure that our bodies have every advantage for a long and healthy life is good. But to focus solely on our physical self, and to ignore that part of us that is transcendent of the body—is to to reduce our lives to a materialist and one-dimensional realm.
It is also probably good to remember that our society has a self-perpetuating stake in keeping us striving for quantity and more at all cost. In fact, any society where its citizens are considered “consumers” should be alert to the fact that they are constantly being sold something (even if that something is a lifestyle) rather than being encouraged to be content, connected to their soul, compassionate with others, and true to themselves. Ultimately, SMART Living 365 isn’t about living a long life—it is about making the most of each and every moment we do have, every single day of our life.
“Do not fear death, but rather the unlived life, you don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.” ~ Natalie Babbitt, “Tuck Everlasting”
“It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.”~Adlai Stevenson