Redeeming Lost Time: Bonhoeffer on Disrupted Lives

Today in this Lenten series, “Theology from under the Rubble,” I’m going to pause a moment to reflect on a further theme in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought that seems particularly relevant today. As I was reading through his Letters and Papers from Prison, I was struck by his reflections on time — specifically how the prolonged crisis of Nazi Germany twisted time and its usual course through people’s lives. This hit on the most common reflection on the pandemic I’ve heard from friends and on social media: how it feels like time has ceased to have meaning, simultaneously crawling by and flying past.

Bonhoeffer wrote from his jail cell in 1943, “Surely there has never been a generation in the course of human history with so little ground under its feet as our own” (13). And, it’s hard to argue with him on that count. He was thirty-seven years old when he wrote that and his generation had already survived the First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the economic collapse following Germany’s defeat, the political polarization of the Weimar Republic, ten years of fascist rule, and were now in the depths of the Second World War. If our generation may feel like we’ve had the ground beneath our feet snatched out from under us, Bonhoeffer’s never had it in the first place. The days, weeks, months, and years were going by and there was still no ‘normal’ for them to return to. And this was true even for a privileged and well-connected family like Bonhoeffer’s. To use a different analogy, his generation was experiencing its Spring and Summer during a prolonged Winter in the world. Reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer commented:

Ten years is a long stretch in a man’s life. Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon time we have lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavour, enjoyment and suffering. Time lost is time we have not filled, time left empty. (13)

While our situation is obviously very different from Bonhoeffer’s, this sense of lost time resonates with our recent experiences. The normal things that give life its texture have been stripped away the past two years, leaving our days and nights a largely undifferentiated mass, and making planning for the future impossible. We used to think nothing of planning an educational path, a wedding or vacation a year or more in advance; now it seems foolhardy to plan anything even a few days out. This has meant that the normal markers of time, whether everyday things like getting coffee with a friend or major rites of passage have been delayed and disrupted. Bonhoeffer reflected on this same reality in a letter to his parents:

We always used to think it was one of the elementary rights of man that he should be able to plan his life in advance, both private life and professional. That is a thing of the past. The pressure of events is forcing us to give up ‘being anxious for the morrow’. (25)

The reference at the end is from the Sermon on the Mount and is worth quoting in full to get the whole sense of what Bonhoeffer means: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6.34). What he’s saying is that the ten long years of Nazi rule — and now the War — had brought so much legitimate immediate concern that planning for the future became nonsensical. Today’s trouble was more than enough for today. So what is the answer? Bonhoeffer continues:

But it makes all the difference in the world whether we accept this willingly and in faith (which is what the Sermon on the Mount means) or under compulsion. For most people not to plan for the future means to live irresponsibly and frivolously, to live just for the moment, while some few continue to dream of better times to come. But we cannot take either of these courses. We are still left with only the narrow way, a way often hardly to be found, of living every day as if it were our last, yet in faith and responsibility living as though a splendid future still lay before us. ‘Houses and fields and vineyards shall yet again be bought in this land’, cries Jeremiah just as the Holy City is about to be destroyed, a striking contrast to his previous prophecies of woe. It is a divine sign and pledge of better things to come, just when all seems blackest. Thinking and acting for the sake of the coming generation, but taking each day as it comes without fear and anxiety, that is the spirit in which we are being forced to live in practice. It is not easy to be brave and hold out, but it is imperative.

Neither simply living in the present without any thought for the future, nor putting life off until the situation improves are helpful solutions. We need to take the more challenging and faithful approach, which is to live fully in the here and now, while still trusting in a good and bright future, no matter how unlikely that may seem in the present darkness.

Not only is this a faithful way, but in my experience, the past two years have demonstrated it to be true. My friends who have fared the best are those who have done what they’ve been able to do with gratitude and joy, rather than focusing on what they haven’t been able to do; while those who have had the roughest go are those who have been impatiently pushing against restrictions, booking vacation after vacation only to have to cancel those plans as the dynamic and unpredictable waves of the pandemic have ebbed and flowed. Similarly, those who have decided to go forward with important milestone events like weddings or funerals in a smaller and simpler way seem much better off than those who have pushed such events off indefinitely until they can be what they’d like them to be. Life may not be able to go on as normal in abnormal times, but neither can it stop.

But this is not easy for us. It takes patience, which runs against our every instinct. “’My time is in thy hand‘ (Psalm 31.16), that is the Bible’s answer,” Bonhoeffer writes about this problem of time; “But there is also a question which the Bible asks, and which threatens to dominate the whole subject: ‘Lord, how long?‘ (Psalm 13)” (32).

One of the ways we can meet these two concerns head on this is to make the time we have as meaningful as possible. And it’s here that I have to reveal that I misled you earlier in quoting Bonhoeffer’s passage about lost time. For, he actually insists that despite all the losses of opportunity and possibility the Nazi regime and war represented, the time has not been lost:

The past ten years have not been like that. Our losses have been immeasurable, but we have not lost time. True, knowledge and experience … are mere abstractions compared with the reality, compared with the life we have actually lived. But just as the capacity to forget is a gift of grace, so memory, the recalling of the lessons we have learnt, is an essential element in responsible living….[T]o us has been granted the privilege of learning [timeless truths] anew by first-hand experience. (13)

When he thought back on the past ten years, Bonhoeffer found that it hadn’t been lost time at all. They were unquestionably hard years for him, years whose events had caused him to abandon longstanding beliefs, to enter the morally ambiguous space of military conspiracies and plots, and to be labeled an enemy of the state by the country he loved. But they hadn’t been lost years. They were full and meaningful, and amounted to a life well-lived. (We’re still talking about how he lived those ten hard years eighty years later!)

The key is not to get bogged down in our own hearts about what we’ve lost. We can — and indeed must — lament it, but that isn’t the whole story, especially not if we are to redeem the time before us. We cannot hope for a better past; we cannot waste our present by wishing it were different. All we can do is be faithful in the present moment, forgiving and blessing it for being exactly as it is, no matter how awful it may be, and acting as responsibly as we can. As Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge:

We can only live in faith and assurance, you out there at the front, and I in my cell. I have just come across this in the Imitation of Christ: Custodi diligenter cellam titam, et custodiet te (‘Look after your cell, and it will look after you’). May God keep the light of faith burning in our souls. (90, letter dated December 22, 1943)

Time may indeed be “the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable.” But what Bonhoeffer’s teaching and example reveal to us, is that losing time is to some extent a choice. Time is as rich in experience, creativity, enjoyment, and suffering as we make it. Life may not be able to go on as usual in extreme circumstances of dictatorship, war, or pandemic, but neither can life stop. This too is a call to responsibility, to use the time before us as wisely, as well, and as meaningfully as we can, no matter what that time looks like.

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