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David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

Temporal stewardship and why it matters

Apr 3, 2024 | Reflections

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

selective focus photography gray analog clock on black surface
Photo by Monoar Rahman on Pexels.com

My high school English teacher and I often failed to see eye to eye, and for good reason.  As an generally enthusiastic, periodically obstinate, and frequently arrogant 9th grader, I (and several others) made the less than ideal choice one lunch period to lock ourselves in our dining room in order to keep out a group of obnoxious middle schoolers.  While a much longer story, it is important to note that I attended a brand new school for high school that at times that first year was akin to something out of Little House on the Prairie.

As we sat on the inside of the locked doors and ate in relative peace and quiet, the serenity of the moment was only interrupted by a knocking at the door which grew more and more urgent.  Naturally, it felt important to ‘crow’ a bit about our triumph to those younger students attempting to gain entry to the room, so I did. 

Sadly, little did I know, but by that point, the door knocker was no longer a hapless 6th grader, but an increasingly enraged English teacher.  An English teacher I would have for daily, intense seminar style classes with fewer than 10 students for the following three years.

Not a great beginning to our relationship.

Relational dynamics aside, across the following three years, this same English teacher did a tremendous job introducing us to a swath of the Western canon of literature, including the aforementioned Faulkner.  As we read Faulkner and labored to disentangle his prose, for the first time, I was struck by how well he captured a dynamic I had often sensed growing up in the South, namely how intertwined the past was/is with present reality.  This past could include the ‘macro’ past – the big issues like slavery and racism, but it also included the micro-past of my own family.  Every trip, Thanksgiving dish, and quilt seemed to carry with it a name, place, or story to hear, retell, and ponder the implications thereof.

And so for the remainder of this article, I want to consider the concept of time, and specifically to unpack a concept I have been thinking a lot about recently, temporal stewardship. 

For most of us, we experience time as narcissists.  We are the main character in the story. The linearity of our lives focuses our actions on our own personal experience of time.  Major events are comprehended relative to our time lines, our age when man landed on the moon, when 9/11 occurred, etc.  While we may say otherwise, most often we do not think or live with much consciousness of where the past intersects our lives today or where our own actions may shape a future beyond ourselves.

But time is not bounded by this tunnel vision of self.  Instead, it looks more like the overlapping scales of a fish.  My experience of time overlaps with those who have come before and increasingly as we age, those who come after.  Even if I may not be directly experiencing the future at this moment (or those who will be present in it such as children or grandchildren), the future is not isolated from now. 

When we build and create things that are designed to persist through time, this dynamic becomes more apparent.  It is not enough for the entrepreneur to view the business through the singular lens of how it creates the ability to provide for his/her family or perhaps generate wealth.  As an entity that stands on its own, and ultimately separate from its creator, the business (or any organization) will hopefully endure beyond its founder’s time line, and intersect with the timelines of tomorrow. 

If we are aware of and consider this endurance, we must balance the present reality of today and the reality of tomorrow – i.e. temporal stewardship.  Frequently we behave as if this is not the case.  Instead, we see young people who “fail to launch” – many times as a result of prioritizing present pleasures at the expense of future opportunities.  We see the middle age, restless for where they were or where they might be in the future, fall into the ‘mid-life crisis.’  Or for those in or nearing retirement, a reticence to ascend to the standing of ‘elder,’ fearing that the loss of today’s role means irrelevance tomorrow, instead of seeing elderhood as a way to create fresh ways of engaging with life and a way to multiply their impact even further.

The challenge for us all is to become conscious of where we stand in the passage of time, how the past intersects with the presence, and how the future will receive the output of our actions.

Doing this well, I believe requires 3 things.

First, we must learn to balance the benefits of today and the benefits of tomorrow.  An acute example of this is a new retiree. This individual has accumulated the financial assets necessary to support them across the balance of their life.  While young and healthy, it may make sense to spend more to take advantage of the time.  But spending too much today may imperil quality of life later on.  Similarly and Keith Richards notwithstanding, aggressively ‘hard living’ when young brings a set of long term implications that may limit the choices available as time passes.  There is a skill to learn in balancing these competing considerations. 

Second, we must put the past into appropriate context and occasionally put it to bed.  We all have a past that we must navigate – it could be our personal past and its baggage.  Or for many, it is the past that occurred prior to our arrival. Pasts and their often unspoken assumptions and implications can dramatically shape our lives. Facing this and dealing with these ghosts is not for the faint of heart, it may require professional assistance. For inheritors of generational cycles of poverty or dysfunction, it may be a life’s work to change the narrative as we have seen in books like Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance or Tara Westover’s Educated. 

Third, we must hold on to the present with a firm but not crushing grip. As we live, we develop points of view, assumptions, beliefs, and other cognitive tools that we have found to be explanatory, supportive, and valuable to us.  These core beliefs are critical to our approach to living life.   Many of these we will hold to as truth with a capital ‘T’ – and rightfully so for things like religious convictions. 

However, there is a great temptation though to elevate secondary beliefs to such a level.  Far too often, these sorts of secondary convictions, which  were helpful and valuable at one time, are forced upon the present by the leaders of the past.  The challenge being that the world may have changed, and thereby dramatically reduced the usefulness of these sorts of important but not absolute truths. 

There is a great potential for richness if we can consider our lives with the appropriate window on time.  While it ticks ever onward, how we steward the pasts we inherit, the moment we are in, and the future to come offers to us a tremendous freedom.  The intensity and immensity of the present moment often overshadows all else.  By laboring to place now into a proper context, we bring a lightness by scaling it to the appropriate place and size.


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Nashville, TN