National Catholic Register


The Anxiety of Time

BY Archbishop Fulton Sheen

December 27, 1998-January 2, 1999 Issue | Posted 12/27/98 at 1:00 AM


[The phrase] “Time on my hands” has far deeper significance than is generally envisaged. It could very well be that time is one of the greatest obstacles to happiness, and for two reasons.

Time makes the combination of pleasures impossible. Because we live in time we cannot simultaneously listen to Cicero, Demosthenes and Bossuet; because the clock of our life is wound but only once, we cannot at one and the same moment enjoy the snow of the Alps and the refreshing sunshine of the highlands of Kenya; because the heart beats out the lease on life, one cannot, despite the advertisements, “dine and dance” at the same time.

It is an interesting psychological fact that the more pleasurable are our moments, the less we are conscious of time. At the end of a pleasant evening with friends, or listening to good music, or being spiritually uplifted in prayer, we say, “Time passed like anything.” When, however, work is a bore, visits a trial in patience and an appointment with the dentist a cross, time never seems to end.

Hidden in this psychological and subjective judgment is already a hint of immortality and the necessity of a timeless existence in order to find perfect happiness. If the more we feel ourselves outside of time, the greater is our happiness, it follows that eternity is the one condition in which all things can be enjoyed at one and the same time. This, curiously enough, is the definition that the philosophers give of eternity: tota simul, all pleasures at once.

But in recent decades, with the decline of faith and belief in immortality, time has become one of the major causes of many psychotic and neurotic disorders. If there is no other life than this, if the daily burden of life leads to nothing more than the grave, if existence has no meaning, then time is the root of most of our anxieties. What then is life but a long corridor through which one passes closing doors, not knowing which door will be the last? Every crisis in life, every new turning in the road, diminishes possibilities. The anxiety of the temporal then begins to press us down, so that we are like a criminal awaiting a death sentence.

The passing parade of time, the slamming of the gates of opportunity, the calming of passions, forced retirements —all of these produce an existential anxiety which makes one wonder if it is worthwhile carrying on.

Because life does not end here, the closing of the doors of time and the burden of the years become bearable—because they lead to something better when properly utilized. That was why St. Paul said that for the sake of Christ he “gloried in his infirmities” and in his anxieties and in his sorrows. This was nothing but the continuation of the message of Our Blessed Lord: “Be not anxious.” This means, “Have no existential anxiety about acquiring too much in time, for it ends and leads to judgment.” So long as one lives for treasures that moths consume and rust eats and thieves steal, there is no possible escape from anxiety and worry. We cannot cast these cares upon God , for God has no interest whatsoever in making a person rich. As William James once wrote, “The sovereign cure for worry is religious faith. The turbulent billows of the fretful surface leave the deep parts of the ocean undisturbed, and to him who has a hold of vaster and more permanent realities, the hourly vicissitudes of his personal destiny seem relatively insignificant things.” It is only to the extent that timeless existence, or eternity, is brought to bear upon all of our actions in time, that we become liberated from that awful, frustrating anxiety of the temporal.