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REMARKS BY THE CHIEF JUSTICE WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST

George Mason University Commencement
May 22, 1993


Time is a wasting asset. Most of us realize this truth too late to avoid spending a lot of time unwisely. As Omar Kayyam said:
The wine of life keeps oozing, drop by drop.
The leaves of life keep falling, one by one.

Credit cards enable us to travel now and pay later. Savings banks and pension plans allow us to work hard early in life so that we can enjoy our retirement. But there are no credits, no savings plans for borrowing or saving time. We are allotted twenty-four hours in each day, and seven days in each week. There is no way that any of us can squeeze one more minute out of any day or one more day out of any week. When you find your job making increasing but unnecessary demands upon your time, remind yourself that time is not an inexhaustible commodity. Like any good free market economist, you should look at what else might be done with the marginal few hours in a week that are not crucial to earning a living.

Another way to look at life is a shopping mall—not the usual kind where goods are purchased with money, but one where items such as worldly success, love of music, a strong backhand, close relationships with your family, a few good friends, and countless other things are on sale. The commodity with which they are purchased is not money, but time. And as we have seen, contrary to the capitalist system of money and goods, every one of us has exactly the same amount of time in each, in each day, in each year.

It is impossible to enumerate, much less discuss, all the ways one can profitably spend time during the course of a normal life. Life's dramas are played out on a number of different stages, and you cannot do justice to the potential of your own life without sampling several of the various performances. As you do so, you will be surprised to learn that new sources of enjoyment are found in places you would least expect them.

It obviously takes time to be a good spouse, and it takes more time to be a good parent. It takes time to make new friends, and time to keep old friends. You may live in a community where certain contributions of time are expected of you, whether from a community organization that feels only you can make its fund raising drive a success, a political party or cause that claims your allegiance, or a religious organization to which you belong. Beyond these are limitless forms of recreation and hobbies that will keep your body healthy and give your mind a respite from your regular work. For many, there is the world of the fine arts, whether as a performer, a producer, or a spectator. The poet Keats said that "a thing of beauty is a joy forever." But appreciation of beauty takes time to cultivate. Likely most of you, on hearing all this, will agree at least in part that these are worthwhile things to pursue. Those of you in the audience who are already well along in your chosen careers may wish that you had a little more time to take advantage of such opportunities. Here, of course, is the rub: all these pursuits take time, a good deal of time. Those who are putting in overtime at the job tell themselves that they don't have time now, but after they have finally made partner, or finally saved another so many dollars, then at last they will have the time and they will take advantage of it.

This is a slippery slope to tread. Some things in life can only be done during a certain part of one's life. You can only be a parent to a young child while the child is young. Children grow away soon enough from their parents, and you can't tell an eighteen-year-old to stay home tonight because Dad finally has the time for him. The time to help out a friend in trouble is now; your help won't do that friend any good two weeks from now.

So, some of the most important things in life have nothing to do with the way you earn your living. To the extent that a total commitment to your job prevents you from finding out about these things or exploring them fully, you are making a decision, albeit passively, with enormous consequences for your life. When you are young and penniless, society conditions you to exchange time for money, and this is quite as it should be. Very few people are hurt by having to work for a living. But as one becomes more financially comfortable, it is somehow very, very difficult to reverse the process and begin trading money for time. I don't say it can't be done, but our society does not make such a trade easy to pull off.

We all have to schedule our lives to some extent if we are going to perform useful functions in the world. But the totally scheduled person has ruled out in advance the possibility of any spontaneous responses to very deserving calls for help, for friendship, for service, and for fun. Such people tell themselves they are only postponing the opportunity to do these things, but in fact they may be sacrificing that opportunity.

As you leave George Mason University today to face new challenges, bear in mind this message from the older generation to your younger one: The most priceless asset that can be accumulated in the course of any life is time well spent. I wish you all much of it.
Reprinted from Le Van, Lawyers' Lives Out of Control: A Quality of Life Handbook (1992) pp 99-101.

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