(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
There is a well known anonymous quote about the value of time. Perhaps you have heard it. “To realize the value of a year’s worth of time, ask a student who has just failed a final exam. To realize the value of one month, ask a mother who just gave birth to a premature baby. The value of one hour can be determined by asking a single mom who is paid an hourly wage. The value of one minute might best be judged by someone who has just missed a flight or a train. To realize the value of one second, ask a person who narrowly avoided a car accident. And the value of a millisecond can be found by consulting the winner of an Olympic Silver medal.”
Time is a commodity with ironic qualities. It seems infinite, and yet so very scarce. Once spent, it is gone. We cannot replace it. In that regard, time has a huge value. But, as economists point out, people often do not act that way. Using the economic theory of marginal utility, that an item is only as valuable as its LEAST important use, our time is treated by many people as almost worthless.
Applying this theory, our least important use of time is to waste it – perhaps spending time watching some mindless TV show. Since most of us have wasted time at some point in our lives, it would seem we value it cheaply. We would never throw away something like gold or diamonds. But, as my opening examples indicate, time is just like those commodities – it is scarce and precious even though we often use it poorly.
My message series this month is focused on the idea of having an attitude of gratitude. To achieve that, I suggest three ways. I suggested last week that sharing treasure – one’s money or material things – is one way to expand gratitude. Next Sunday, I will examine how sharing our talent – the skills and life lessons learned – as one way to express gratitude. Today, I consider how sharing the most valuable resource we have – time – is a way to be grateful.
I spent a major portion of my message last Sunday looking at the difference between the cost of something versus its intangible value. The cost of things we pay for here, for instance, is a set amount. The value of what we receive here, however, is I hope much, much higher. If so, then my hope is we will pledge according to the added value we believe we receive.
To that end, I want to give some of my time in volunteering in the same way I give my money. The cost of a year, a month or a minute might seem trivial but, as I pointed out earlier, they have priceless value to the student who failed an exam, the mom of a premature baby or a businesswoman who just missed a flight.
Determining the monetary cost of our time is easy. Economists tell us to take the monthly amount of money we bring home, after taxes, and divide that by all of the of hours in a month. Surprisingly, the average cost of one hours time for almost everyone – including executives and professionals – is depressingly less than $16.
Last Sunday, I used the example shown in a MasterCard commercial to illustrate the difference between the cost of something, compared to its value. That commercial used the example two tickets to a baseball game, two sodas, two hot dogs and one autographed ball together costing about $200. But having a meaningful conversation and creating lasting memories with your son or daughter at a baseball game, that is priceless. As the commercial says, there are some things in life money CAN’T buy.
And clearly, even though the monetary cost to our time is low, the intangible value of our time is very high!
Interestingly, human understanding of time is mostly determined by a religious or non-religious view of it. According to most world religions, time is something controlled by God. It was made in order to organize human life. Time, according to most religions, did not exist before God created the universe, and it will cease to exist when the universe ends at what will be an Apocalypse type finish. Eternity will be one of peace and happiness for those in heaven, and unremitting torment for those in hell.
As we think about a religious concept of time, we must ask if it sounds reasonable. Eternity in a place like heaven sounds wonderful, but would it really be so? Absent sorrow, can we really understand joy? If one’s existence is unending joy, would there be any need to work, or find meaning and purpose? If some of the people I know are spending eternity in the fiery pit of hell, would my existence in heaven be so happy? Indeed, doesn’t the fact that we will one day die add poignancy and value to life? Can we really enjoy life without the contrasting fact of death? Ultimately, don’t these questions lead one to doubt a religious understanding of God and time?
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had that doubt. He believed that time has NO beginning or end. The enlightenment philosopher John Locke believed the same, as do most modern scientists and physicists. Time is something that can be quantified, measured and defined according to known physical properties – like radiation waves from certain atoms, or the rotation of planets around fixed stars. Time, according to Aristotle and most scientists, does not exist outside the rational and physical laws of nature. There is no unseen power that created it or controls it.
And this in an important point. It supports my belief about the universe, life and theology. God is not some outside, supernatural force that controls all things. There is no god that will bring about a better existence. There is no god who determines the order of our lives. I believe god is us. It’s we who are the gods and goddesses responsible for building a better earth – for feeding the hungry, binding up the lame, healing the sick and loving family, friend and stranger. We need look no farther than our own hearts and minds to find the god in each of us.
If that is so, then it is we who have control over the use and value of time. For instance, we might spend an hour watching re-runs of a TV show like “Gilligan’s Island,”, or we might spend an hour reading the book Between the World and Me, by currently acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
We might spend an hour at a spa enjoying a face scrub and foot massage, or we might cook and serve lunch at a homeless shelter. The economic cost of those hours of time, as I related earlier, will likely be small. But the value of each is a different matter.
Understanding the sting of racism, by reading the Coates book, will help empower empathy, wisdom and awareness – especially towards people of color. Serving an hour at a homeless shelter will likewise foster compassion and empathy. The value of hours are priceless.
These hours are invaluable because they have a multiplier effect added to them. They pay value forward by improving the world far beyond their cost. We can only imagine the racial reconciliation that could occur if every white person learned to empathize with the struggle of their Black, Latino or Muslim sisters and brothers. We can only imagine how one lunch could help change the life of homeless youth.
Last month, I sat and ate lunch with a young lady at the Sheakley Lighthouse Center who had recently learned she was several months pregnant. She excitedly told me the dreams she had for her child – an apartment in which to live, ways she would read to him or her, and how she would make sure the child always felt loved. It seems so small, and yet the lunch this congregation provided and served was one way to insure the health of that baby. The monetary cost of hours given by three people to prepare her lunch and for 19 others was less than $30. Tell me please, however, what is the value of those hours given?
Interestingly, numerous studies and experts show that the giving of time, through volunteer work, is a way to also add value to one’s own life. Even though the motivation is to help others, volunteering benefits not just those served, but also the server. The Wharton School of Business reports in a study of volunteers that most feel they have more free time than if they did not volunteer. Much like people who donate money to charity feel wealthier than those who do not, volunteers find that giving away their time causes them to better value, and better manage, the rest of their time.
Numerous other studies indicate volunteers are healthier and happier than those who don’t share their time. A 2002 study shows that persons who volunteer have half the mortality than those who don’t. Volunteers have less heart disease, lower blood pressure, lower feelings of stress and depression, increased memory and cognition, and greater mobility.
The London School of Economics further reports that volunteers have higher levels of empathy and more social connections than do non-volunteers. They are also happier. Levels of self-reported contentment are 7% higher for those who volunteer once a month, 12% higher for those who volunteer bi-weekly, and 16% higher for people who serve weekly. Study after study concludes the same result: giving away time in service to others has a double benefit – for the recipient and the giver.
I said last week that that this congregation, at least while I’m minister, will never use guilt, shame or religious bribery to cajole you into pledging money. We trust one another to give according to how our hearts and minds lead us. (Nevertheless we have guards posted at the Sanctuary exit doors today to make sure you fill out Pledge form. Not!)
Trusting one another to pledge as they can is the same way we trust each other to give their time. Members volunteer here not because they must, but because they know this congregation is, as we say, a beloved community. We serve here much like we serve in our homes and families – because we love one another.
One member here who recently agreed to take on a team leadership role told me how honored and privileged it felt to be both asked and trusted for the position. I was touched by that sincere expression. The role this person has taken on is one that often goes unseen but is vital to our growth in numbers and our strong sense of community.
Many volunteer roles here are similar. They are done largely unrecognized but are so very, very important. Volunteers here give their time in thousands of ways that insure not just the strength of this congregation, but the strength we will have to touch, serve and change for the better our city and world.
We count the dollars given here but we don’t count the hours volunteered. If there was a bank account of hours volunteered, however, this would be a wealthy congregation. What I ask each of us to do is examine the value of our time. And then I ask us to consider that if we love this place, if we love one another and are grateful for the love we receive here, we will resolve to each volunteer as many valuable hours as we can. If you want to volunteer but don’t know where, please see me, a board member or Richard Thornton. There is always much to do for people of all ages and all abilities.
Since we are each proverbial gods and goddesses – responsible for giving, loving and serving others until the day we die – then it is the use of our most valuable asset – time – that will have a lasting impact. Yes, we can donate our treasure. But money and things can always be replaced. The hours, minutes and seconds of time that we share – to tutor a child, serve a meal, act for social justice, offer an encouraging word to another, serve on a committee, or gently be a loving presence in someone else’s life – these are priceless legacies we build on the sands of time. Let us each insure our time has value, and our hearts are filled with gratitude, by giving some time away to improve our world.
I wish you all much peace and joy!