Time for Everything
(This post is an installment of CommonSensical.)
The British writer Charles Lamb (1775-1834) was a contemporary and acquaintance of the most significant Romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley. At age 17, Lamb entered employment in a London office of the East India Company, where he continued to work as a clerk and accountant for 36 years. The “confinement of an office” was Lamb’s livelihood for all but ten years of his adult existence. The avocation of literature, however, always remained his primary passion.
Lamb’s essay “The Superannuated Man” was penned in 1825, immediately following his unexpected retirement from the office. It’s a bittersweet reflection on the pricelessness of personal freedom — and Lamb’s surprisingly mixed feelings upon his “deliverance” from a life of drudgery.
Reading it today, one can’t help but note how little has changed in nearly 200 years. Back then, just as now, being retired was a condition you craved and feared in equal measure. Also, we see that what we call “office life” is nothing new. Lamb speaks of his long-frustrated desire to escape his daily tedium — something many modern readers, caught between earning a living and having a life, can surely relate to. “The Superannuated Man” begins:
If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life — thy shining youth — in the irksome confinement of an office; to have thy prison days prolonged through middle age down to decrepitude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite; to have lived to forget that there are such things as holidays, or to remember them but as the prerogatives of childhood; then, and then only, will you be able to appreciate my deliverance…
Lamb had been delivered, at age 50, from his dreary, desk-bound career — and dreary it was indeed, he assures us. Even Sunday, his one day of freedom per week, had tormented him because it always proved so short-lived. Vacations were hard on him for the same reason. He got a week per year. Most Americans today, as we all know too well, are lucky to get two.
…Besides Sundays I had a day at Easter, and a day at Christmas, with a full week in the summer to go and air myself in my native fields of Hertfordshire. This last was a great indulgence; and the prospect of its recurrence, I believe, alone kept me up through the year, and made my durance tolerable. But when the week came round … was it not a series of seven uneasy days, spent in restless pursuit of pleasure, and a wearisome anxiety to find out how to make the most of them? Where was the quiet, where the promised rest? Before I had a taste of it, it was vanished. I was at the desk again, counting upon the fifty-one tedious weeks that must intervene before such another snatch would come. Still the prospect of its coming threw something of an illumination upon the darker side of my captivity. Without it, as I have said, I could scarcely have sustained my thraldom…
I was fifty years of age, and no prospect of emancipation presented itself. I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul…
This seemingly endless condition of drudgery had begun to depress Mr. Lamb. One of his colleagues happened to take note of his low spirits. Next thing Lamb knew, he found himself summoned to the boss’s office.
The eldest partner began a formal harangue to me on the length of my services, my very meritorious conduct during the whole of the time…[he] ended with a proposal, to which his three partners have a grave assent, that I should accept from the house, which I had served so well, a pension for life to the amount of two-thirds of my accustomed salary — a magnificent offer!
But once his initial jubilation had passed, the newfound freedom of retirement bewildered Lamb. He hardly knew what to do with himself. Possessing such an overabundance of time, he was also surprised to find himself feeling depressed again:
…For the first day or two I felt stunned, overwhelmed. I could only apprehend my felicity; I was too confused to taste it sincerely. I wandered about, thinking I was happy, and knowing that I was not. I was in the condition of a prisoner in the Old Bastile, suddenly let loose after a forty-years’ confinement. I could scarce trust myself with myself. It was like passing out of Time into Eternity — for it is a sort of Eternity for a man to have his Time all to himself. It seemed to me that I had more time on my hands than I could ever manage. From a poor man, poor in Time, I was suddenly lifted up into a vast revenue; I could see no end of my possessions; I wanted some steward, or judicious bailiff, to manage my estates in Time for me.
Suddenly given the opportunity to live however he should choose to, Lamb can’t help brooding upon the subject of how much life he has already resigned to employment in an office.
…I have indeed lived nominally fifty years, but deduct out of them the hours which I have lived to other people, and not to myself, and you will find me still a young fellow. For that is the only true Time, which a man can properly call his own, that which he has all to himself; the rest, though in some sense he may be said to live it, is other people’s time, not his…
But he can’t deny, either, that all his time spent in the office was also life, and surely counted for something — maybe even counted for more than he’d thought. After all, he’d had friendships at work, and he’d derived a certain pride and self-worth from doing his job well. In fact, a part of him began to wish he hadn’t retired (had desk-life really been as miserable as he’d sometimes believed?)
…My old desk; the peg where I hung my hat, were appropriated to another. I knew it must be, but I could not take it kindly. Devil take me if I did not feel some remorse — beast, if I had not– at quitting my old compeers, the faithful partners of my toils for six and thirty years, that smoothed for me with their jokes and conundrums the ruggedness of my professional road. Had it been so rugged then after all? or was I a coward simply? Well, it is too late to repent, and I also know that these suggestions are a common fallacy of the mind on such occasions. But my heart smote me. I had violently broken the bands betwixt us. It was at least not courteous. It shall be some time before I get quite reconciled to the separation. Farewell, old cronies….
I missed my old chains, forsooth, as if they had been some necessary part of my apparel…
Here Lamb beautifully observes an ironic truth that many a retiree can understand. Having “grown to his desk,” and having come to loathe his “prison” condition, he nevertheless sees that all passing time is precious. Whenever we cross a threshold and find ourselves forced to recognize an era’s conclusion, we distinctly feel this preciousness of time and wish we’d made more of what we were given (no matter how passionately we’d cursed the daily routines before). Maybe, given more time, we might have found more to appreciate. We might have learned something more about ourselves and our colleagues.
Now, Lamb finds himself adrift in a strange, unburdened existence.
…Time stands still in a manner to me. I have lost all distinction of season. I do not know the day of the week, or of the month. Each day used to be individually felt by me in its reference to the foreign post days; in it distance from, or propinquity to the next Sunday. I had my Wednesday feelings, my Saturday nights’ sensations. The genius of each day was upon me distinctly during the whole of it, affecting my appetite, spirits, etc. The phantom of the next day, with the dreary five to follow, sat as a load upon my poor Sabbath recreations… What is gone of black Monday? All days are the same. Sunday itself — that unfortunate failure of a holiday as it too often proved, what with my sense of its fugitiveness, and over-care to get the greatest quantity of pleasure out of it — is melted down into a week day. I can spare to go to church now, without grudging the huge cantle which it used to seem to cut out of the holiday.
In the end, of course, he not only accepts his new condition but learns to cherish it. And his newfound freedom teaches him that slowness, inactivity, and thoughtfulness should not be undervalued.
I have Time for everything…. It is Lucretian pleasure to behold the poor drudges, whom I have left behind in the world, carking and caring; like horses in a mill, drudging on in the same eternal round — and what is it all for? A man can never have too much Time to himself, nor too little to do. Had I a little son, I would christen him ‘Nothing-To-Do;’ he should do nothing. Man, I verily believe, is out of his element as long as he is operative. I am altogether for the life contemplative. Will no kindly earthquake come and swallow up those cotton mills? Take me that lumber of a desk there, and bowl it down… I am no longer clerk to the firm of _______, etc. I am Retired Leisure. I am to be met with in trim gardens…
Lamb’s freedom also brings him to reflect that he’d played his part well and offered society his service. Surely there was honor in that. But still, between the lines here, don’t we glimpse a man haunted by regrets? A man, perhaps, who wishes he’d done something different with his life.
…I have done all that I came into this world to do. I have worked taskwork, and have the rest of the day to myself.
Time is precious indeed, and we do well to spend ours wisely.
(Read “The Superannuated Man” in its entirety here)
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