Earlier this week I was walking across campus when a group of maybe eight or ten students approached from a crossing pathway. The afternoon was warm and sunny—the kind of weather we hadn’t seen in quite a while—and their high spirits were obvious, even from twenty feet away. The young men and women laughed and joshed one another, and as they eventually passed behind me, one guy began whooping and calling out, razzing his friend, clearly holding court within the crowd.
I smiled at their exuberance. But as the young man’s performance escalated in volume and bravado, my thoughts did the following hop, skip, and jump:
- Even when I was young, I wasn’t one to hoot and holler my way across the quad or cavort with my friends at top volume in public places.
- Actually, I’ve always found that kind of boisterous behavior a little off-putting, especially in men. Attention-seeking at best, overtly aggressive at worst.
- I wonder if Steve ever walked across campus in a clump of his buddies, whooping and hollering and causing a ruckus?
- I can’t picture it.
- I like that about him.
- I bet I would have liked the man he was while he was in college.
That last piece got me to thinking about the importance of timing. Steve and I have had several conversations about how we met at just the right time, the precise moment in our adult lives when we were ready and right for each other. That statement—and its opposite, the eye-roll-inducing “it’s just bad timing” breakup line—sound like hackneyed romantic clichés. But timing matters.
Recent research shows our relationship to time is grounded at the cellular level. Though the concept of Circadian rhythm is familiar, scientist Fred Turek and his team were surprised to discover that “there are clocks in all the cells of [the human] body.” NPR, reporting on the findings, put it this way: “humans are time-keeping machines” who “need regular sleeping and eating schedules to keep all of our clocks in sync.” We don’t do well when they get out of sync—witness the sharp increase in car accidents and heart attacks on the Monday morning following the shift to Daylight Savings Time, and that’s just a one hour difference.
What does our individual, biological experience of time have to do with timing in life events and relationships? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. If our experience of the world can be dramatically influenced by something as apparently minor as what time of day we eat that grilled chicken sandwich with extra pickles, how could it not be affected by other forms of sensory input and experience—breaking a bone, reading a novel, seeing the ocean for the first time—all of which have physiological as well as emotional components? It’s a myth that every cell in the body is overturned every seven years, making us essentially new people, but the fact that some cells live for four days, others four months, and still others a lifetime (colon cells, red blood cells, and neurons in the cerebral cortex, respectively), means our very makeup is perpetually in flux. It seems entirely plausible, if not inevitable, then, that when you meet someone plays a significant role in whether (or not) you perceive each other as a match.
There were significant stretches of time when, had Steve and I met, we might not have. Practically speaking, there’s enough age difference that connecting romantically any time before I turned 20 would have been skeezy; then, Steve was happily married for 20 years. Even if we hadn’t been attached to others, though, there were times the gaps would have been too wide to cross. The fact my faith in uncertainty tends to be surer than my sense of god wouldn’t have settled well with Steve during his years of deeply invested religious practice. At one point, after several bad experiences of dating stridently conservative men who tried to convert me, I shied away from anyone whose worldview displayed the barest hint of leaning right. Maybe we each had to grow fully into ourselves before we could be open to each other.
I picture a winding river and two roughly parallel trails. Each traces the riverbank, one on the east side, one on the west. In places, the stream widens, creating a gap too far to reach or even leap across; in others, it narrows to nothing, a trickling line. Each of us walks one of those trails. We begin on different days and years, we walk at different speeds, we stop and rest when our bodies and minds variously demand it. Sometimes we find ourselves tripping through the narrows with a fellow traveler who doesn’t suit; sometimes we spot someone who does and wave frantically, ecstatically from our bank, but there the river is far too wide. And so we keep on walking.
If we’re lucky, one day on this long, beautiful trek, we’ll find ourselves walking alongside someone who gentles our heart, inspires us see the world anew, and it will happen at just that moment when the two paths run so close together they almost merge.
Only there, and then, can we reach across and grasp one another’s hands to walk on, together.