Because I know there are other humans who wrestle with the pros and cons of deadlines, set by yourself or by others.
Assignments. Replies to emails. Zero in-boxes. Units per second. Beats per minute. Unravelling those targets, who’s deadline is it really?
There are some deadlines I think of as ‘real’: because they are life or death. For example, the finite number of minutes for which a human heart can be stopped; or how long a newborn can linger in the birth canal; or the length of time a diver can stay submerged on a single tank of oxygen; or indeed the minutes they need to safely pace their return to the surface. These are, quite literally, deadlines.
Which might be why, in my gut, I know that the other deadlines in my life are artificial. Time-bound targets are most likely a response to someone’s pain of being with uncertainty.
Deadlines are a way of creating meaning. A deadline can be a powerful way of choralling my own focus or an entire team of people to work to a shared outcome. Yet, we are smarter than that. Inherently, we know whether a deadline is truly life or death. In our bodies, we wonder if this deadline is really serving life. And we are on guard against its unintended consequences.
I have been reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. As I drew, my mind was flicking through themes of time, purpose, horror, hope, limitations and imagination. Frankl describes the shock prisoners experienced as they encountered a life without a specific deadline. In the concentration camp, no-one had a date for their release: either through death, or by being freed. “It was impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this form of existence would end.”
Frankl observed that being without a known deadline could be in itself fatal. He found that “looking to the future” was what helped his fellow humans to not just survive, but to remain in the state of love that helped them to acknowledge the reality of present pain and also to transcend it by giving hope to self and others.
Frankl asked what it was that inspired a starving man to share his only crust of bread. What was it that inspired one ravaged prisoner to speak words of hope to another: to help a suicidal camp-mate to picture the possibility that his children or wife or parents would be longing to see him again one day? What was it that fuelled Frankl to find hope and comfort in vividly imagining his future contribution to the world as a university lecturer? What was it that led to being able to hold a long loving conversation with his wife as if she were right with him while he slogged and was flogged in freezing workgangs where his only ‘real’ company was a gnawing stomach and festering feet?
It had something to do with hope, Frankl found. Being able to picture a future while being present to the current intense pain.
This hope for the future was most powerful when others held it with you. And most terrifying if others lost it. Frankl learned: “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed … We all feared this moment – not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends.”
It seems that hope, although personal, takes a village. It is interdependent. We instinctively need others to nurture it with us.
This morning, decades later, I am grateful Frankl found a way to look to the future … Even when it was so nakedly uncertain and the present was so cruel.
As I process Frankl’s processing of such extremes of human behaviour – violence, and generosity – I’m discovering a freeing thought.
What if a deadline that I or others “impose” on me could be received as a gift? Can a deadline be seen as a mutual giving and receiving between human hearts? What if a deadline is a fellow-human’s way of inviting me to share in a forward-direction, a unifying purpose? What if they innately know that if I join them in moving towards a shared purpose, they too can maintain connection with life and hope?
A deadline can be a gift when I remember that I will still have my own choice about if and how I work towards it. Always.
What if we had no deadlines? No opening hours or closing hours. No transport timetables. No lessons learned about saving life and keeping food healthy within use-by dates?
At what point do deadlines serve us, at what point do we become their slave? How do we be with these artificial targets, support our team-mates, belong to a shared purpose … without surrendering our own wisdom, perspective and most of all our care for others?
What frightens me about deadlines? What wisdom lays there?
I associate deadlines with rush. Rushing towards at outcome. Deadlines can be a fearful space in which I have accidently slammed my own hand or the hand of a child in a car door. Deadlines can be the anxious pressure under which I say things that I later regret, the fraught energy with which I push past someone in a busy street, the suffering of cursing another driver on the road. I also associate deadlines with the warnings of history. For example: obediently snuffing out a certain number of lives every week in the gas chambers, to fulfil the “greater good” of a “purer” human race.
This morning, I’m celebrating that this symbol emerged from my own action. Yes, even a “deadline” I’d offered myself. Draw at least once a day. Share it if you like. Make marks on a page. Dare to offer myself some creative exploration and peace. Trust that in sharing it, it will touch someone else in whatever way they need in this moment. I’m celebrating that thrill. That freedom. Even within the limitations of my own skill and awareness.
It’s such magic, discovering what swims up from a blank page. This raw image is especially precious to me, because it emerged in the presence of natural beauty outside my window that seemed beyond my skill to express in any way.
I was daunted because I woke up looking straight out at the coast of Australia’s Great Ocean Road. Frogs, birds, surf splashing. The water of Airey’s inlet shimmering.
I was especially daunted this morning because I woke up looking straight out at the coast of Australia’s Great Ocean Road. Frogs, birds, surf splashing. The water of Airey’s inlet shimmering.
There was some frustration – oh to see so much rich colour and beauty that my heart wants to burst. And still, at the same time, to feel a familiar Sunday morning restlessness. How to make the most of this “free” day … Well, free-er than other days of the week? What do I want to be doing in life, really? Face another working week where I can see time as not being my own?
And yet, in the presence of this outer beauty and inner unrest, I dared to make marks on a page. I dared to express the unique life that is flowing in me, even when the world around me was beautiful already and even when other beings are considered “more skillful in conveying art.
With this murky head, I began to move a very light yellow crayon across the centre of the page. Then, other colours came. Then, some delight as the colours led the way – colour over colour forming new tones.
I asked myself was there a symbol waiting?
This clock came, I drew it quickly knowing only that it would be unfinished on one side. Something about daring to transcend the deadlines that are set. Something about keeping perspective. Staying wide open to compassion.
There’s also something about having tenderness for the reasons we set deadlines, and how they can bring satisfaction and flow. There’s a forward-focus, shared purpose. It sounds so clear and concrete to say ‘complete x activity by y time’. Satisfaction. Accomplishment. Illusion. Soothing. Reassuring. Tick. Progress was made. And also looming, false, the pressure to care-less for all needs in the service of some.
Perhaps what Frankl offers is the insight about what it means to live with purpose. The deadline itself is not meaning. At the same time, a single “higher” purpose is also not inherently meaningful or helpful. It comes back to savouring my freedom to choose my response to each moment of life.
“What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Whatever the deadline, I remain free to choose whether it is meaningful for me as a way of serving life. I remain free to choose how I move towards it. And I remain free to choose whether I continue to move towards it.
Moving towards a deadline doesn’t have to be at the expense of remaining present with myself and my colleagues. How about moving towards a deadline with intent to remain compassionate and aware along the way. My heart will be the guide.
I might see an artificial deadline as seduction. There’s a risk of losing sight of all else in return for the temporary pleasure of certainty and flow. Is either state inherently good or true? Both are a way of living that I might choose at a particular point in time.
As I go into this week, I’m feeling playful with a sense of choice and self-trust.
Deadline? Or lifeline?
My heart will know how to choose at the time.