I recently came across a letter I wrote to my wife as I was beginning my five-year prison sentence. There in my tiny little cell at the county jail, awaiting the terrifying uncertainties of the years ahead, I was learning just what old convicts mean when they say, "Do your time. Don't let your time do you." Here's an excerpt:
My mind just won't quiet down. I keep pacing the room, laying down, getting up again. I tried sleeping some more, but sleep just won't come. I know in my mind that it will get better once I've been "broken" and have adjusted to the passage of time in prison. It's just so hard sitting here minute by minute reliving the happiness of the past several months with you. I have to learn to force those thoughts from my head because they only drag things out. I have to keep thinking in terms of weeks or months - stop measuring time by hours and days. One year is so small in the big picture, but it seems so unbearably massive when I think of 365 more days passing like this last one has.
That was written when I still imagined I would make parole on my first review, which I estimated would be no more than a year later. I would probably have had a clinical panic attack had I realized how impossibly naive that speculation was. When I finally did make parole, 25 months later, I would be departing from a unit where some of my companions had been locked up longer than I had been alive. It all made me reflect on what a precious gift our time really is.
Prisoners have a rather different perspective on their time. There is a dull monotony to the prisoner's lifestyle, no matter how he or she manages to occupy the time. When so few meaningful things are going on around you and when the dismal scenery remains unrelentingly identical day in and day out, you stop counting days and begin measuring time by weeks and months - and sometimes even these run together after a number of years.
When time is a good thing for us, we idolize it. When it is a bad thing for us, we "kill" it. But neither extreme reflects God's intention for our time. Pondering the swiftness with which our human lifespans pass, the psalmist prays, " Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." I think we are generally good at numbering our days, but I suspect few of us number them "aright." Placing ourselves at the center of the universal timeline, we seize our share of that infinite progression of moments as though it were a perishable personal belonging.
I believe the Bible summons us neither to idolize time (as though it were the ultimate force in control of our lives) nor to "kill" time (as though time was created merely to serve us). The busy American futilely trying to cram too much into a finite schedule and the lonely prisoner trying desperately to numb the passage of time are more alike than it might seem: both are self-oriented, failing to perceive how God summons them to redeem the time allotted to them.What might it mean to "redeem" our time? The word has the sense of buying something back, of paying some price to liberate it from bondage or oppression. Inasmuch as our sinful natures desire that we use time for selfish pursuits (or that we forfeit the use of time altogether through laziness and despair), those precious moments are not serving their Creator as they ought. Redeeming time means foregoing selfishness in order to appreciate how God's desires might be advanced through our judicious use of whatever time we are given. The price paid is our natural desire; the prize won is God's will accomplished through us.