Inspired by the character Dunbar in Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, Cormac Dineen reflects on the notion that the moments where time drags are the moments to be savoured most
“Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly. He had figured out that a single hour on the skeet shooting range with people like Havermeyer and Appleby could be worth as much as eleven-times-seventeen years”.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is an amazing read for a number of reasons. Aside from being an outlandishly funny novel, Heller also manages to draw from his own experience as a bombardier in WWII in such a way that produces one of the most intimate and barbarous examinations of not only war, but life itself, ever put down on paper.
The excerpt included above is just one of Heller’s innumerable insights that really piqued my interest. Dunbar is an army airman and comrade of the protagonist, Yossarian. Throughout the book, we see Yossarian shouldering the harsh realities of war by trying to avoid his death, whether it be through contrived illnesses that land him in hospital, or nonsensical airborne manoeuvres that lower the chances of both his plane, and his target, being hit. Dunbar however, makes sense of his role in the war, and likely death, in an entirely different manner. He purposefully puts himself in annoying, boring and uncomfortable situations in an effort to draw out the time between missions.
When I read this passage initially, it certainly garnered a chuckle, but I subsequently became fascinated with the idea and began to think about what it really meant. Time is arguably the only truly priceless commodity possessed by humankind. Illusive, incomprehensible, and finite in nature, it is something that is all too often willed away. Time passing quickly is often viewed as a positive in day to day life, but as Dunbar so accurately posited, time spent doing things you find boring or annoying passes at a relative snail’s pace. This sent me down a proverbial rabbit-hole of thought.
Why should I hate those uncomfortable moments so passionately? How can I change the way I think, and saviour those egregious moments that make minutes feel like months? And finally, what if I achieve this reversal of thought, will the uncomfortable moments become those that pass most quickly?
Imagine yourself on sitting in your living room on a wet and windy December night, whittling away hours of your life in moments spent watching your favourite films and stuffing your face with whatever you could find in the cupboard. All of a sudden, a realisation hits you like a cold, wet towel on a bare arse. You forgot to take out the bins. You trudge out to front door and cram your feet into somebody else’s shoes, bracing yourself for exit. The very instant the door is open you experience a biting cold that sends the shivers up your very soul. Now realistically, bringing a wheelie-bin to the end of the driveway is about a fifteen-second trip, each way, but because the task is so abhorrent, it feels like fifteen years later that you stumble back into the house with icicles hanging from your nose, voicing a newfound solidarity with Tom Crean.
A buffering video, waiting rooms of any description, the onset of rain during a walk… Each of these terrible situations casts a sort of spell on our minds, turning the seconds in to minutes, and the minutes to hours.
Now picture yourself waking up in your bed with your clothes still on, you were out chopping pints until four in the morning and your room reeks of alcohol and cigarettes. You take a customary glance at your phone and which tells you that you begin an eight hour shift in forty-five minutes. Shakespearean tragedies have been written about less.
You walk into work with your earphones in and your head down, lest anybody attempts to converse with you. “How’s the head?” asks a co-worker who’d you’d happily cast into the seventh circle of hell given the faintest of opportunities. No response. You check the clock which tells you you’ve been working for just six minutes, somewhat surprised that you could even read the time, in spite of the jagged pain in your head and the taste of vomit in your mouth. After what feels like a few hours you steal another look at the clock only to find that a mere three minutes have passed. Jesus Christ. Surely something is wrong with that clock? Maybe you should check the batteries? By the time you get home and look in the mirror, you’re barely recognisable. Centuries have past; you’re a shell of the person you once were.
The same trend can be observed arising in any menial or unfortunate situation you land yourself in on a day-to-day basis. A buffering video, waiting rooms of any description, the onset of rain during a walk, holding a piece of rubbish for somebody, collecting a family member from the airport, or pretending to care what’s happening on a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation. Each of these terrible situations casts a sort of spell on our minds, turning the seconds in to minutes, and the minutes to hours.
Despite how much I dislike these situations however, I can’t shake off the feeling that maybe Dunbar is on to something.
The best and most brilliant times of your life always vanish in an instant; fairydusht, as Matthew McConaughey would put it. So why rush through the other ones?
Maybe these moments, the ones lengthened by sheer disdain are the moments we should cherish? When I think about how much time I have left in this world, the only world I have ever or will ever know, I can’t help but be thankful for these moments. It feels as if Time is extending me a line of credit, delaying the impeding bankruptcy that I am faced with. I may not be at war, I may not have people trying to kill me, but unless I find the Philosopher’s Stone lying around and manage to transcend the mortal realm, Dunbar’s point of view becomes more important with each tick of the clock.
So, while it may sound implausible for anybody to start savouring the worst parts of their day (I’ll concede that it is perhaps wishful thinking on my behalf), what we could do is to merely stop wishing them away. The best and most brilliant times of your life always vanish in an instant; fairydusht, as Matthew McConaughey would put it. So why rush through the other ones?
You can read all sorts of rubber online nowadays about how to live a long life, “This 104-year-old eats a packet of blueberries every morning before she starts her day”, and while this may be sage advice in terms of health and wellbeing, in my opinion it overlooks a glaringly obvious point:
You can live a longer life by not wishing that half of it was over.