The Thirteenth Hour Podcast #386: The Marginal Utility of Time, Reflections on 2022, and Future Goals
Happy new year, and welcome to 2023! This first episode of the new year is all about time. Though time exists independent of all of us and will go on and on regardless of whether we exist in it or not, it is a finite resource for us living creatures. I think of an expression (which I might be paraphrasing) that my mother, who studied economics in college sometimes used (one I thought was humorous due to the extravagance of the words) – “diminishing returns of marginal utilities.” If I’m getting this correct, the “marginal utility” part describes the satisfaction that one experiences by consuming one unit of something. While economists are usually referring to “utility” in terms of as a product, I think the concept applies to some nonpurchasable items as well, including time. In some cases, the more time you have, the less you value it; yet when you have less, it becomes more and more precious. Gaining even a bit more would yield a net positive marginal utility. But none of us, regardless of our station in life, can get more of it. We all have however much time we are given, and none of us know how much.
There is a quote from the novel “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles that is inscribed on Brandon Lee’s tombstone (it came up in one of his last, if not the last interview he did prior to his death) that is particularly poignant and gets at this idea:
“Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you cannot conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”
Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens echoed similar sentiments when it came to his own work in ways I think many artists will be able to relate to. In the podcast, I include a segment from one of Dave’s journals read by Billy Campbell from the documentary Dave Stevens: Drawn to Perfection.
When I was initially writing The Thirteenth Hour as a teenager, I think I was trying to put these idea into words in my own way. I suppose I had a different view of time since I was younger, but looking at it decades later, I think that is one of the underlying messages of the book – taking life by the reins and making the most of it, that the world can what you make of it if you believe in your dreams and don’t sit passively by, letting time pass you by.
Interestingly, the Buddhists have a slightly different take on this since they believe in do-overs. Life, from a Buddhist perspective, is about suffering, and escaping this cycle of birth and rebirth is to finally find peace (a.k.a. nirvana). But for those of us still in the world, there are some interesting insights in this drawing below of the samsara (wheel of life). There is a segment of the wheel below (the one with the animals in it) that is called, not surprisingly, the animal realm. The Buddhist view of non-human animals is that they are not as evolved, not as intelligent (human-centric, I know) and so creatures born into this part of the samsara earned their lot in life though past negative karmic action. I don’t know if I agree with that, but I think you can also use aspects of this as an analogy for parts of human existence. When we are in the animal realm, we are focused on survival – just getting through the day. But when we get a breather and have better resources, we can enter into the higher realms where we have increasing ability to reflect on our situation and focus on more than day to day needs. Times like the new year sometimes give us cause to stop, pause, and reflect on where we want to go. So in this episode, I not only reflect on some of the positives of the past year and some goals for the one to come.
Thanks for listening!