The Tyranny of the Timeline

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“I have to get into an amazing college by the time I graduate high school.”
“I have to be married by the time I’m 30.”
“I have to have kids before 40.”
“I need to be at the top of my career by 29.”
“I need to . . . (insert your own have to/need to)”

Sound familiar? Do you have a litany of life achievements that have to be accomplished by a certain year, or in some cases an actual date?

There’s nothing wrong with any of these goals. All of them can potentially bring meaning, purpose, and value to our lives. But they are just icing on the cake. We often forget this, however, and become enslaved by the tyranny of our timelines. It’s as if our aspirations take on dictatorial form and begin to terrorize us with an endless loop of worry. A fear of missing out (FOMO) is directly tied to how rigid our timeline is, as we see others around us “hitting our targets” before us.

This inflexible servitude to our timeline can have devastating effects. I’m reminded of a young woman who believed she must have a child by age 30. This was non-negotiable. She constantly criticized and berated her husband for not getting promotions at work in order to provide a stable economic foundation for a family. She spent large parts of the days agonizing over the lack of a child in her life and looked with jealousy at her friends who already had children. She also beat herself down with judgmental thoughts about how something must be wrong with her because she was 29 and still childless. By the time she finally got pregnant at age 31, she had alienated her husband and was physically and emotionally exhausted from years of worrying about not having a child.

Organizing our lives around an imaginary timeline was certainly a vague concept before the middle of the 18th century. Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the West, time was measured primarily by seasons, harvest, and community events. With the rise of the factory system, there arose a need to keep workers on the clock and productive. Since that time, we have become supremely time oriented, some would argue time obsessed. Productivity has replaced vitality as a measure of your worth. But you are not a factory. You don’t have to achieve a certain output by a certain date to feel worthwhile. All you need is to be present and open to your life as it unfolds before you. In this way, we can befriend the natural timelines of our lives and not the imaginary ones we hope will save us.

So what can we do? Awareness is always the first step to change. We can begin to become curious about our own personal timeline. What events stand out? Did we set up these goals after long and thoughtful deliberation about what will truly make us fulfilled or did we inherit them from our parents, friends, social media, or our culture? What does allowing ourselves to be enslaved by these milestones cost us, short-term and long-term? Ask yourself, “What does my timeline tell me about what is really important to me?” If you have 3 major timeline events that include relationships, for example, this is probably an area that resonates with you.

After we understand the personal timeline we believe will create a meaningful life, we can learn to hold it lightly. Many people have ended up in careers they never would have envisioned or relationships they couldn’t have predicted. They found them by being flexible and open to alterations to their projected future. Think for a moment about your own life. Have there been delightful surprises in your life that didn’t fit into your timeline? Our challenge is to find a way to honor our aspirations in life while keeping them from becoming rigid and temporal. In that way, we allow more of life in and create opportunities that go beyond the two-dimensional tyranny of our timelines.

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