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Time, Contingency and the Illusion of Control

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Over the past two months I completed two milestones: my 60th year of life and my 20th consecutive year of sobriety. Coming on the cusp of a new calendar year, these two anniversaries present the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at time, contingency and hope. As many of us consider New Year’s resolutions, it’s also an appropriate time to think about the two faces of human fragility: resolve and regret. Hope for what might occur is often in reference to regret for what already occurred. My adventure in sobriety is something of an object lesson in that perennial human experience.

I would probably not have reached 60 years without the sustained, daily discipline of the latest 20. There is a deep irony in this. While I cannot control the aging process, every day I make a decision that makes it more probable that I’ll live another day. Today is the day I choose not to drink. Tomorrow will (probably) come, without my consent, and I’ll have to make another choice not to drink. And so forth. In other words, I cannot control time; but I can control my decisions and actions such that my time is, to some degree, “affected.”

Counterfactuals are a tricky business. On one hand, we can sometimes conclude that effect X occurred as a proximate result of cause Y. However, we cannot necessarily say that X would not have occurred if Y did not happen, because an unforeseen event Z could have caused X to occur. Despite contingencies, we all make choices intended to affect both our use of time and the duration of our lives. Which is why, today, I choose not to drink alcohol. An event that I cannot foresee may occur, but it will not occur because I took a drink. I can make a choice that affects my time, even if I cannot control that time.

But what does it mean to say that we can “affect” time? Aren’t we really saying that we affect our relationship to time? A more interesting irony of our lives is that what we most want to control are things over which we have absolutely no power: time and duration. We use the phrases “time management” and “organizing our time,”
but we are no more able to do these things than to manage the wind or organize the sunset. Time marches on, indifferent to our desire to impede or channel it. Thus, the best we can do is make choices that affect our relationship to time. We pretend to control time, we manage and organize things within time; but time itself remains indifferent to our efforts and, in fact, has absolute control over us.

Indeed, the emotional state of regret is deeply rooted in time’s callousness to our efforts to control it. Therefore, the solution to regret must involve giving up on trying to effect changes that cannot be completed. What is more innervating, after all, than trying to accomplish something that is impossible to achieve? Only slightly more discouraging is presuming we can make absolute commitments in defiance of our moral lives’ contingency. In theological terms, our annual pronouncement of grand, sweeping resolutions is, to some degree, an assertion that we are God, who alone is Lord over time and duration. When we say we will never choose this action again, or we will always make that choice going forward, we presume to be able to control the contingencies that make folly of such pronouncements. We try to break the shackles of time and cast off its chains, and “the one enthroned in heaven laughs” (Ps. 2:3-4).

The better, more hopeful encounter with the New Year— and with time and contingency—will be to surrender our presumption that we can control time and the self- defeating conceit that goes with it. Or, as Our Lord instructs us, “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself ” (Matt. 6:34). Worrying about tomorrow, thinking we can control it, is the formula for failing today. Surrendering that worry is what we alcoholics mean by taking one day at a time. So, I close by wishing you a blessed Wednesday, or happy three o’clock. Let Thursday, 3:01 and 2023 take care of themselves.

 

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the January 2023 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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