The Passage of Time

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time” – James Taylor

“Nothing sadder I know than the passing of time”- Neil Finn

As the end-of-June date for my twin son and daughter’s high school graduation ceremony draws near, and with my thirteen years of daily driving them both to and from school already having come to an end, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the passage of time.

The contrasting quotes that open this post come from songs written by two singer-songwriters I have followed for many years – James Taylor certainly the better-known of the two, thanks to his four-decade-long career as a solo performer and recording artist; Neil Finn less well-known as the song-writing leader of the English pop-rock band Crowded House, which has been recording and touring for more than twenty years now.

What to make of the contrasting assertions of these two songs?  Is the passage of time something to be enjoyed?  Indeed, is learning to do so “the secret of life” that Taylor assures us it is?  Or is time’s passing something to be regretted, as Finn mournfully puts it?  Is “nothing sadder” than this?

Let’s begin with Taylor’s song, “Secret O’ Life”, which I must confess has always grated a bit on me – in spite of its melodic charms, there’s something too facile in the philosophy this song espouses.  Consider a few of the lines which follow the title lyric – “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time / Any fool can do it / There ain’t nothing to it / …. / Since we’re on the way down / We might as well enjoy the ride.”

First of all, I find the assertion – not to mention the poor grammar! – of “there ain’t nothing to it” greatly lacking in merit.  I would argue that pondering our relationship to the passage of time is a worthy life-long investigation, one that can bring us to an ever-deeper awareness of, and appreciation for, the mystery and the wonder of being alive.  Not exactly what I would term a task for “any fool”.

And what to make of “enjoying the ride since we’re on the way down”?  This is hardly a persuasive rationale for enjoyment.  I read these lines as a prescription for a thoughtless, passive stance – you’re heading to the end anyway, so just grin (like a fool, perhaps?) and bear it.

Turning to our other selection, the “nothing sadder” lyric is from an introspective and somewhat abstruse Neil Finn song entitled “English Trees in My Garden”, in which the singer, alone in a garden he once frequented with a past lover now dead, observes the signs of nature’s changing seasons and contemplates the inexorable passage of time denoted by these changes.

Here are a few lines – “English trees in my garden / …. / They lose their leaves in the winter / Mark the seasons for him and for her / Once upon a time, in the falling snow / Up against the sky, made a silhouette show / …. / In Regent’s Park I will mourn for you / And I must be wise somehow / ‘Cos my heart’s been broken down / It’s so far to fall / It’s so hard to climb / Nothing sadder I know / Than the passing of time.”

The deep feelings being expressed in “English Trees” contrast sharply with casual absence of any real feeling in “Secret O’ Life”.   Nothing denotes this emptiness better than the repeating occurrence of the word “enjoy”.  The song’s advice is meant for the pleasure-seeker in us – “enjoy yourself”, “enjoy your day”, “enjoy your vacation”, “enjoy the ride”, “enjoy the passage of time.”

And yet, if Taylor’s words are too strong an invitation to cling to our pleasures, Finn’s are too strong a temptation to wallow in our sorrows.  Neither song points to a completely reliable path for how we might better understand the passage of time in our own lives.

But, both of them, by illuminating the extremes we had best avoid, indirectly suggest the way.  So, let’s start by letting go of our consumer-driven need for constant enjoyment, and admit that it’s no more necessary to “enjoy” the passage of time than it is to “enjoy” most, if not all, of the other transient pleasures we are so attached to.  Then, let’s acknowledge that getting caught up in nostalgia for a past that no longer exists is really just one more form of clinging to pleasure, and recognize that time’s passing is, in itself, neither sad nor any of the other emotions we might invest into it.

The passage of time simply is.  Enjoying it – or regretting it – is irrelevant.

Using this assertion as our starting point, we can start down the path of cultivating a more mindful awareness of time’s passing, unclouded by any emotional response.  With this clarity of vision, we free ourselves up to better focus our attention upon the only thing that ever matters – how we are living right here in this precise present moment.

Perhaps the secret of life is simply to be with the passage of time.

PS – Both songs referenced above are readily available as downloads at various music sites, including iTunes and Amazon.  If you are interested in the CDs on which they appear, you can find “Secret O’ Life” on James Taylor’s album “JT”, and “English Trees in My Garden” on the Crowded House album “Time on Earth”.

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About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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4 Responses to The Passage of Time

  1. I’ve always been obsessed in all sorts of ways by what we call ‘Time’! JBPriestley’s book on the subject is a summing up. But, apart from odd occasions in what I like to think of as ‘the past’, I wasn’t particularly concerned about the Grim Reaper till the day of my 70th birthday. Then it hit me on the very day that ‘this could be the decade when…’ Prior to that decades just happened…

    These significant moments, like the approach of your son and daughter’s high school graduation ceremony, do bring one up short. Then one can go in either direction as in the songs you quote. But, as you say, there’s another angle at the bottom of the Pendulum swing.

    Having rejected both of the attitudes in the songs, I rely on Stephen Covey’s dictum THE BEST IS STILL TO COME, a statement he made @ 70. That brings me into mindfulness…

    The other thing I’ve taken to doing is (breaking old habits!) to make my bed carefully every morning holding the thought that the action is not just the beginning of day but the beginning of life; then, throwing the covers back at night, I recall the day as though it were the whole of life, firm in the knowledge that tomorrow will be a new day/life. That seems to pack a whole life into a day over and over again!

    I’ve been wanting to put that into words for some time. And now I have. It may appear in my own Blog before long! Thanks Tom.

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  2. I’ve taken much too long to acknowledge your valuable comments, Colin. I too find myself – as birthday #63 draws near – wondering if this will be “the year when ….” I’m fascinated with your daily practice of treating each day as an entire lifetime, and may well try it out myself – perhaps for the first time on my upcoming birthday! And I look forward to your future blog post on the topic.

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  3. David Lloyd says:

    Great post. But just FYI, English Trees is actually about the suicide by hanging of Neil’s one time band mate, and crowded house drummer, Paul Hester. He killed himself in Regent’s Park. Awful business. Out of which came this beautiful, elegiac song.

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    • Tom Cummings says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks so much for the background info about the Crowded House album. I was aware of Hester’s suicide, and of its impact on Finn’s lyrics in a number of the songs on the album, particularly “Nobody Wants To” and “People Are Like Suns”. But I was not aware that his citing of Regents Park in “English Trees” is a reference to the actual site of the tragic event. Knowing this fact adds new poignancy to the song, which I already admire so much.

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