Today I start exploring how life can be divided into segments, and why doing so can be useful to us as clinicians when trying to understand our patients’ lives and, of course, as people with our own lives to reflect upon. This dividing of life into segments can be important because having a structure (schema) and a language with which to think about the parts of life can help us better understand life as a whole; its segments, the relationships among these segments, and the experiences and activities that occur within each segment and how to make the most of them. The result will be, I hope, a deeper appreciation of how to spend our time well with the seriousness, respect, and reverence it deserves.
As humans living in a modern society we live in the realm of two kinds of time, objective time and time experienced by humans as ‘lived time.’ Both kinds of time can be split up into segments. Just as we divide objective time into discrete units of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so forth, we can also think of ways of dividing lived time. Here I propose we divide lived time into moments, events, and chapters. These segments of lived time, of course, do not perfectly align with the segments of objective time. For instance, a moment does not equal a second, nor does an event equal an hour or a day. Despite this lack of alignment between objective time and lived time, both kinds of time inform, structure, and constrain our lives. Because of this it would be a mistake to ignore one or the other kind of time. There are additional dimensions to how we perceive and are immersed in time. These include developmental stages and sociocultural changes that I will address in later posts.
It just so happens that the society we live in is one that focuses to high degree on objective time and compels our alignment to it. Our daily lives are often scheduled down to the minute, and we raise our children to be likewise scheduled. We do this because adhering to these norms, rules, and expectations of objective time that abide within our society provides benefits for us. If we show up on time to work and complete our tasks at an agreed upon pace, then units of work is equal to units of time. The benefit is we may receive a pay raise or at least be able to keep our job. Conversely, we experience negative consequences from being late to work or school, for a flight, or to a traffic court summons.
Because of this overbearing force of objective time that weighs on us throughout our days, it is easy to lose sight of the ebbs and flows of lived time. When aspects of lived time do become apparent it is often in the context of a negative event. When we get sick we need time to rest and to recover. But all this ‘rest’ accomplishes is to place us further behind in our schedule of work to be done. It turns out there is no rest for the sick, just a deferment of tasks that must be repaid later with interest.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced to them.” – Maya Angelou
As mentioned, I present a three-level model of lived time: moments, events, and chapters. I introduce all three here and then tie the concept of an occasion to all three. The shortest timeframe of lived time we experience is moments. Each one lasting as long as it takes for a cohered, conscious experience to manifest. This is a kind of snapshot of what is actually the continuous and non-discrete flow of consciousness with one focus of attention arising, abiding, and fading away only to be replaced by the next one. So, a moment is the time it takes to have an idea, hear someone speak, recognize your preschooler running towards you amid all the other children, realize you are late again for another meeting, or to notice the itch in the middle of your back.
At the other end of the spectrum, life can be divided into chapters, which are shorter and more numerous than life stages. For example, Erikson’s midlife stage of generativity vs stagnation can include the chapters of marriage, pregnancy, parenthood, new job, or career, and alternately, divorce, extended unemployment, bankruptcy, illness or injury, or death of a loved one. After each of these life events, life can become upended and, rather than being a temporary event in need of temporary adjustment, can become a life-altering event that launches a person into a new life chapter after which nothing is the same. These life chapters are extremely relevant to mental health clinicians because it is in response to these transitions between chapters (and life stages) that people become susceptible to mental illness. It is during transitions when old ways of living and coping become less effective or even counterproductive and new ways of living and coping must be developed. Some individuals thrive, others bumble through, while others—the ones we are most likely to treat—struggle and fail to various degrees.
Midway between the micro-level moments and the macro-level chapters, lie events. Event means “something that occurs or happens.” Etymologically from Latin, the “e” is from the prefix ex meaning “out” and “vent” is from ventere, meaning “to come.” Thus, an event is an outcome, something we find ourselves in and are already in the midst of. One lesson that the etymology directs us towards is to consider more carefully, as we go through life, how to set up the conditions ahead of time to more likely find ourselves in certain types of events rather than in others. In psychiatric treatment one intervention the clinician should introduce is a focus on foresight and planning. For example, for someone in recovery from an addiction a core method of maintaining sobriety is to choose wisely one’s ‘playmates and playgrounds’ because the wrong ones are likely to lead to relapse. Of course, in the event a person in recovery does find themselves—inadvertently or advertently—surrounded by high-risk associates and places, that person needs also to have (and have practiced) escape techniques. But it’s best to avoid getting caught in those types of events altogether.
A term with a meaning close to event is a happening. The root of happening is the word hap—and yes hap is an English word—meaning luck or fortune. Currently, to say someone is lucky or fortunate connotes the presence of good luck and good fortune. Originally however, the valence of luck and fortune was neutral, meaning that one’s luck or fate could be good or bad. Luck and fortune, as well as fate, referred to occurrences that arose from chance or that were preordained or controlled by an outside force, a god for example. In either case a person did not control their fate. Instead, one’s fate interacted with one’s character and with any pre-existing fatal character flaws. Thus, when a person was subjected to a life crisis, one which required fateful choices or actions, any character flaws would be revealed in the choices made and actions undertaken.
Here I introduce still another term, occasion, a word with a triple meaning. First, it often is used to refer to a particular time or instance of an event; “We’re holding a party on the occasion of Tommy’s college graduation.” Second, occasion refers to a cause which is also implicit in the above example. Another example of occasion as cause is; “His complete lack of focus on his work occasioned his dismissal.” And last, occasion means an opportunity; “The nice weather provides occasion to wash our windows from the outside.”
Now, to tie up the three words: event, happening, and occasion. An event is something we find ourselves in, something into which we partially or fully fall or are thrown into. The event opens us up to something happening, some situation that can end up being detrimental or beneficial to us. Partly, whether the happening is detrimental or beneficial is due to a person’s character, their ability to act wisely rather than impulsively or foolishly. An event is an occasion that opens opportunities to the people who find themselves in it and can act wisely. Opportunities are by their nature beneficial, but that does not mean that only good things can come from them because opportunities are also when bad things can be avoided. Note, for example, that a threat is a positive occurrence because a threat signals that violence or other harm may occur but it hasn’t yet and, thus, provides the opportunity to act beforehand to avoid it. I’d rather hear a lion’s roar from afar than find myself in its jaws without warning.
So, after this long linguistic journey what lesson do I leave with? The lesson for me is that I now try to comport myself to daily events and happenings as occasions for learning, meeting people, enriching my life, and as testing grounds for living (or not) my values. Will I be able to act with the resolve, wisdom, kindness, and courage I hope to be able to grow into or not? I continue my journey to find out.
I’m curious to know what you think.
This more abstract discussion serves as background to a future post on mindfulness and how a comportment of occasioning relates to it.
“The events of our lives happen in a sequence in time. But in their significance to ourselves they find their own order the continuous thread of revelation.” – Eudora Welty
“History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.” – Ambrose Bierce
“Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.” – Wislawa Szymborska