Blog Rerun: Time Enough At Last

This is a blog post I wrote on my DW/LJ blog, a little more than a year ago:

“Time Enough At Last”, starring Burgess Meredith as a book-loving bank teller who misses the apocalypse, is one of the most famous episodes of the Twilight Zone. It’s one of the ones—along with the one about the thing on the plane—that even people who’ve never seen an entire episode are likely to know about, and it didn’t even star William Shatner or get re-made for the movie.

But it’s one that some people find puzzling in a way that leaves them either vaguely uncomfortable or with a sense that the story is ultimately lacking in the sort of philosophical underpinnings that make the Twilight Zone more than just a schlock anthology.

Submitted for your approval: Meredith’s Thurber-esque character of Henry Bemis is exactly the sort of put-upon protagonist that in another episode might find himself vindicated or rewarded by the twist of fate. The idea that his “bad habit” of hiding away during his lunch hour to read both saved his life and freed him from all obligation to a society that had no use for a dreamer is sufficient premise for an episode of TZ all in and of itself.

The twist where he breaks his glasses (oh, by the way: spoiler warning) and can no longer read his beloved books is the sort of fate that would normally be reserved for someone who actually conspired to bring about the end of the world just to get away from everyone.

It’s the kind of cosmic punishment we expect to be doled out by the Twilight Zone, but that raises the question: what’s Henry Bemis being punished for?

Stuck for a moral, a lot of reviewers pick up on Bemis’s own words on the subject: “That’s not fair,” he tells us. “That’s not fair at all.”

Life is not fair. The universe is not fair. But that’s a little bit pat, and I think it also misses the mark. I think to get the actual message, we have to set aside the bit about the unfairness of life as a given and focus on the rest of his words as the central theme about how life is unfair in this case.

“That’s not fair,” he says. “That’s not fair at all. There was time now… there was all the time I needed. That’s not fair.”

It’s not “not fair” that he broke his glasses. It’s not fair that he broke his glasses now, now that there was time. This is not a trivial distinction. The sentiment is referred to in the title of the episode, after all.

And that’s the lesson: time makes a mockery of us all.

We know that nothing in this life can last forever—least of all this life—but we put things off for later. When? Later… y’know, when there will be more time for it. But the future by definition never holds more time for us, only less.

How much less?

We don’t know.

We never know.

And the thing of it is, even if we learn the lesson and take it to heart, we can’t avoid time’s trap. There are times when you have to make the gamble that the future will hold time enough, because even though you don’t know if it will or not, you know that the present doesn’t. No matter how many days you seize there will be plans that have to be put off and dreams that have to be deferred and processes that take time, no matter how slow and painful they may be.

All we really can do is weigh the time that we have, not knowing how much we have but knowing that it can’t be infinite, and make the best decisions we can about how to spend it.

When I wrote this, I was thinking about all the things in my life that I had put off or put on hold over what was basically the preceding decade, but especially the five years leading up to my move. That kind of thing is a hard habit to break. I’m posting this again because I felt the need to re-read it today, as a sort of motivational booster shot.

I was surprised to see that I wrote it in April of last year. In my head, I’d written this post in response to Dorian’s death in September, since was the time when I most acutely felt how much time had passed me by while I was basically marking time. But here I was, making that same observation almost half a year before.

Like I said: it’s a hard habit to break.