The Gift of Time

Ellen - Vermont
Entered on October 24, 2005

Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: carpe diem
  • Listen to This I Believe on RadioPublic

  • Podcasts

    Sign up for our free, weekly podcast of featured essays. You can download recent episodes individually, or subscribe to automatically receive each podcast. Learn more.

  • FAQ

    Frequently asked questions about the This I Believe project, educational opportunities and more...

  • Top Essays USB Drive

    This USB drive contains 100 of the top This I Believe audio broadcasts of the last ten years, plus some favorites from Edward R. Murrow's radio series of the 1950s. It's perfect for personal or classroom use! Click here to learn more.

I believe that the most important gift you can offer yourself is the “gift of time.”

After decades in the time-pressured arenas of politics and policy, I’ve learned that often, not doing is the most important thing you can do.

For 20 years as a chief of staff on Capital Hill and a White House advisor, I lived in the constant awareness that every moment was consequential. I was on 24-hour call. My time was never my own….Then at 8 p.m. on January 20, 2000, I handed in my pager, cell phone, secure ID and Secret Service pin. As the tall iron White House gates swung open and then clanged behind me, I knew there was no going back. I went home and slept for 15 hours straight.

I woke up full of anxiety–I needed a job. But when I thought about what to do next, it struck me that I wanted to reclaim my time. Time wasn’t just hours in a day, but something infinitely more precious. I decided that I needed to take to heart the question Mary Oliver asks in one of my favorite poems: “Tell me then, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Before, time was something I could never find enough of; now, I realize it’s all I’ve got.

Taking time can feel like being lazy–but I’ve learned it’s the best way to discover who I am and imagine who I might become; understand where my care lies, and where to direct my gifts.

I’ve also discovered the paradox of time: you need to take time to make time. As the president of Marlboro College, it’s hard to keep this in mind when the phone rings or new email chimes. But every day, I take time to make time.

I know that if I’m going to answer the poet’s question, I need to draw from a deep well of time, of quiet attentiveness, of love and forgiveness. As writer Wallace Stevens said, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”

This September, my main advice for freshmen wasn’t to work harder or meet deadlines, but to give themselves the gift of time. Time to walk around the lake. Time for nourishing solitude. Time to read and to sink into another person’s words so fully that they can imagine someone else’s life.

I shared out loud what I am seeking myself: time to contemplate my own life. Time to look at the stars until they start singing to me and I am part of the song. Time to apply my heart to wisdom.