What Fills Time?


“SILL-LA-BULL-DRILL-LIN-AT-TWO-THAW-TEE,” a monotonous, overly-articulated voice drones. I set the timer for 10 minutes, my student immersed in the task ahead. If you didn’t know him, you might think this student abhors ‘syllable drilling.’ But in his classroom, he watches the clock like a hawk, awaiting the fleeting 10 minutes where he can tap away at a keyboard without interruption. This is one of his most cherished routines.
I currently work in a school for non-neurotypical children. There, time is a currency, a key and a lock—both liberating and bending us to the will of behavior. Especially for non-verbal students, time bridges any lack of communication, providing motivation to elicit language through which tasks can be measured and performed, for new skills to be learned, and for new words to bud.

In an effort to control my time, I seek to ground myself in the present. In 2016, I began to write and rewrite mantras which helped to anchor me, validating me when I felt hurt by others, hurt others myself, or had an unkind inner dialogue.

Everyone is beautifully human/chaotic/flawed.
I am growing and learning. I am grateful that I can still grow/learn.

These mantras helped me embody gratitude and forgiveness. But in this new year, I find a conflict: my values are changing, especially in respect to my investments of time. I find myself questioning the ‘goodness’ of my time and the quality of the time I spend engaging in different activities. I find myself wanting to siphon-out my true desires from an often over-crowded inner dialogue.
So this year, I have attempted to embody the following mantras:

I do not need to care. / I can choose how I want to feel.
I am not a victim.

At a glance, the above seem cold and distant, as if one should aspire towards disconnect from loved ones. But for me, these phrases dare me to ask myself hard questions and acknowledge hard truths:

What do I really care about? Have I given myself an opportunity to truly know?”
“Why do I really care about x? Is that a good reason? Are my reasons truly necessary?”
“Why does x upset me?”
“Are the unfortunate things that I perceive surrounding my life truly bad? Are they necessarily indicative of me or my character? … Should I care?”
“Uncomfortable moments happen. I can choose to hold on to them or let them go.”

Time can be both a welcome rest or a heavy burden, especially when one is forfeiting routine or other familiar comforts. In fact, if you were to ask one of my non-neurotypical students to forfeit their routine, they may lash out in violence or flop to the floor uncooperatively.
Change is hard. Changing a thought or behavior pattern is hard.
Sometimes, it can be easier to sit with our suffering, to build solidarity with companions, and to feel simply wronged/misunderstood by external forces. We may spend our days thinking of a future that may or may not be, suffering in the present over something nonexistent. In actuality, we can either let time spin frivolously in our self-generated emotional cyclones, or capture it, infuse it with our intentions, and shape it to fit the wants and needs of each present moment.

… And when the timer beeps at 2:40 PM every Monday through Friday, I am reminded of this lesson that I repeatedly try to teach myself; a student who communicated his wants happily bounds down the staircase, having taken his time by the reins.

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