Deadlines

I’m listening to a man on the radio explain that it’s too late to limit the world to 2° C of global warming, the level identified by climate negotiators as the threshold beyond which the world faces “dangerous” consequences: acidification of oceans and extinction of many species in them, the gradual disappearance of island nations like the Maldives, increased drought, flooding, crop failure and resulting famine, and increasingly turbulent weather. According to the speaker’s interpretation of current climate models, developed countries needed to halt the growth in their greenhouse gas emissions back in 2010.

The term deadline originated from prison camps during the Civil War, and referred to a boundary located about 20 feet inside prison walls. Guards would shoot any prisoner who crossed the deadline, their intention being to prevent prisoners from getting so close to the wall as to climb over or tunnel under it. Only later did we adapt the term to metaphorically communicate the seriousness of particular endpoints in time. It is tempting, after hearing this etymological account, to think the lesson to be learned is that of survival over escape, survival over freedom.

And maybe the anxiety to survive does manifest itself in our extensive to-do lists and obsessive clock tracking, in the way we confine tasks to time boxes, but only after they’ve been arranged according to urgency. Deadlines come with the simple expectation that unless something goes drastically wrong, they must be met. Yet we all know that work, like climate or anything else, has variation. Countless unpredictable occurrences can influence how long things take. Nonetheless, in the words of Douglas Adams, “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

Adams himself possessed an ability to miss deadlines that was legendary, and is frequently quoted as saying, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” His editors had to bully him into writing anything; they even locked him in a hotel suite for three weeks at one point to ensure completion. He eventually wrote five successful novels including, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which a massive supercomputer is designed to give the ultimate answer, the answer that would completely explain “God, life, the universe, and everything.” The computer takes seven and a half million years to do this, and by the time it delivers the answer, everybody has forgotten the question.

Without a time limit, some of us might never finish our work, not even in seven and a half million years. Parkinson’s Law describes how tasks seem to swell in complexity in relation to the time allotted for their completion. Worse, without a time limit, some of us might never even get started, paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes. In this light, deadlines are the lifelines of completion and accomplishment, in part because they take a stand against perfectionism. More than one writer working without a deadline, for example, was known to have spent years tweaking the first sentence of a manuscript (e.g. Virginia Woolf, Leonard Cohen).

Deadlines have the undeniable power to get us going, to focus our energy, to derail distraction, and ultimately permit us to let go of something that can never be perfect.

But even in situations as fraught with devastating potentialities as climate change, deadlines are missed, sometimes repeatedly, sometimes willfully, but usually accidentally by someone who isn’t aware of the deadline or hasn’t had the opportunity to exercise their deadline-meeting muscles. My own missed deadlines are at times due to ignorance of the deadline’s existence. Other times they’re a result of my inner-perfectionist getting the best of me. In response to the (self-imposed) deadlines for posting to this blog, for example, a part of me wants to argue that the language needed to describe the subtleties of one’s personal meditation practice takes time to master, takes an unhurried engagement with the tasks of observation, description, and expression. To effectively speak this language it is necessary to slow down, and to slow down I need unrestricted, unmeasured time to reflect, think, and write in the absolute freedom of no deadline. Another part of me knows very well that without a deadline and its urgency, I’d likely not be reflecting, thinking, or writing all that deeply about my sitting practice at all.

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