The Time Zones of Our Life

Note: This homily was delivered to the high school seniors of Xavier School on 16 September 2010.


Prisoners in death row are usually granted their request for last meals on the eve of their execution. Last year British photographer James Reynolds came up with an interesting project where he documented these “Last Suppers.”

Here are what some of his pictures revealed: Prisoner 1 opted to feast on junk food: five pieces of fried chicken, a milkshake, some fries and beans.  Prisoner 2 asked for something simpler–a milkshake and a doughnut.  Prisoner 3 requested for six bottles of soda and one piece of cracker.  Prisoner 4 ordered nothing more than a pack of cigarettes and a matchbox.  Finally, as far as Prisoner 5 was concerned, his last meal was going to be a fruit festival.

Now, if you had to pick your last meal, which of these five meals would you choose?  Try to remember your answer because I think your choice can tell us something about yourself.

There’s a Professor Phillip Zimbardo who’s done thirty years of research on people. According to his findings, we have different perspectives based on time. These perspectives, which he calls “time zones,” affect us much more than we suspect.  Two of these time zones focus on the past. Two focus on the present. And the last one focuses on the future.* Let’s see which one applies to you.

Let’s start with those who picked Meal No. 2 (the milkshake and doughnut) and Meal No. 3 (the one cracker and an abundant supply of Coke).  If you picked any of these two meals, you may have a tendency to focus on the past. If you picked Prisoner 2’s choice, your time zone is most probably what Zimbardo calls “Past Positive.” This means that you tend to focus on the good things of the past, the good old days, past achievements, great memories… If you like keeping photos, organizing scrapbooks, and remembering birthdays and anniversaries, you’re probably Past Positive.

If, however, your pick of a last meal consists of one cracker and lots of Coke, this choice may mean that while you also most likely focus on the past, unlike the first one, your time zone is “Past Negative.” This means that you have a tendency to remember not so much the good times, but the bad. You tend to obsess about the regrets, the failures, the things that went wrong before. If you have this tendency, then you live in the time zone called Past Negative.

What about if you chose 1 – if for your last meal, you prefer to feast on junk food? You would fall under a category called “Present Hedonist.” This means you’re more present-oriented than past-oriented: You tend to look for excitement, short-term fun, and not worry too much about the past or the future. Your decisions are usually based on what we call the Pleasure-Pain principle: You seek pleasure and avoid pain. This principle is, of course, instinctive; so if this is all we follow, this doesn’t make us any better than animals.

If you picked Meal 4–in other words, you’re interested in spending your last hours not in eating, but in smoking–you would also be present-oriented, but your time zone is called Present Fatalist. This means that you don’t think it pays to plan for the future, to keep fit, or to save money because you believe that things are beyond your control anyway. Everything has already been conditioned. Some people call it “destiny”; others call it “God‘s will.” Whatever you call it, your belief is that whatever you do, your life is already predestined, determined by your poverty, your family tree, or your religion so there’s not much you can do. If you find yourself feeling that way, that’s being Present Fatalist.

Finally, if you chose for your last meal this harvest of tropical fruits, your time zone, unlike the previous ones, is future-oriented and is called Future Achiever. You believe that it pays to plan, to work rather than play, to resist temptation, to delay gratification. And we do this to build a better future because if your time zone is Future Achiever, you believe that you and your efforts today can make a difference in your life.

Here’s the good news: We can change time zones. In fact, we do shift from one time zone to another as the situation arises. The important point here is that among these time zones, there is one, which is most predominant in our lives, where we tend to stay most of the time without our knowing it: one prevailing time perspective that affects a lot of what we decide and do. The key thing is that we become aware of what this time zone is and decide whether that’s where we want to live most of our lives.

The meals are just symbols, but they represent something important in our lives: The way you’ve been living your life so far, the way you’ve been studying or not studying this year, the reasons for the way you’ve been acting–which time zone do you think you fall under?

You are now on your fourth year, your last year here in Xavier. There’s so much to recall about the past, so much to celebrate about your stay here, and also so much to learn from. When you recall all these past years in Xavier, are you going to focus on the positives or the negatives?

Fourth year is also the time to make the most of the present, this final year, and there’s a tendency to stuff it with great memories. But as we saw, we can also be present-oriented, but feel resigned to it as something we can’t control or shape, so we feel enslaved by the moment rather than masters of it.

Our seniors last years were feeling a bit discouraged when we had our batch mass: As early as the first quarter, they were already worried that they weren’t going to enjoy their last year of high school. That’s because last year we had the AH1N1 virus scare and the Ondoy flooding, both of which resulted in the cancellation of so many classes. The seniors were tempted to become Present Fatalist, resigned to an abnormal and boring fourth year. But I remember how we challenged to make the most of the year despite all the things that were beyond our control.

As you know, there’s also so much to look forward to in your future, a future that you are already in the process of building for yourselves, right now in the choices you are making and the actions you are taking in the present.

Let’s do a little detour to our Gospel story. There we have three characters: Our Lord who’s enjoying a meal as a guest, the Pharisee who is hosting the dinner, and a gate-crasher, the sinful woman who even if uninvited, barges into the scene to wash our Lord’s feet with perfume and to ask for his forgiveness. In this one scene, we see different time zones at work. Can you guess what their time zones are?

The Pharisee takes one look at his gate-crasher and immediately dismisses her as a sinful woman, from whom no good will come. If we classify him using Zimbardo’s categories of time perspectives, he would be both Past Negative and Present Fatalist. He sees only the negative in the woman’s past, and he believes that the woman would not amount to anything; she is already condemned by her history of sins and her low status in society. Nothing she does will change that. As a result, he would have nothing to do with her.

The woman, however, decides to take matters into her hands and to change her situation. We can only imagine the amount of courage and imagination it has taken for her to get herself near the Lord. As we know at the time, our Lord enjoyed the status of a rock star, a virtual celebrity hounded and surrounded by crowds of people. This woman is a Future Achiever: Determined to improve her lot, she swallows her pride, braces herself for the unpleasant and painful task of entering the Pharisee’s house, just to accomplish her goal. We can actually learn a few things from her.

What about our Lord? The Lord watches the Pharisees and the sinful woman, and he gets it. He recognizes their time zones and challenges them to grow. The Pharisee is enslaved by his perspectives of the past and is condemned to the present. Through a story about forgiveness, our Lord tells him to break out of his time zones, where he has imprisoned himself.

To the woman, our Lord says, “Your sins are forgiven.” He frees her from the past and praises her for her faith not only in him, but also in herself. Only with faith in a benevolent God and in her own good is she–or anyone–able to gain peace.

Dear seniors, this year you find yourself on the brink of graduation. It is a good time to look back at the past–to celebrate and give thanks for all the good things, but without forgetting or denying the mistakes of the past–not so much to wallow in them and feel miserable, but to learn from them. There’s also so much future to look forward to. But in truth, the only thing we can control is the present. This present is shaped by the past, but it is what makes all the difference for our future.

On this your last year of high school, make the most of the present, of the now. Learn as much as you can. Make as many friends as you can. The choices we make today, the actions we take today will shape what our tomorrow will be like.

That’s our special prayer for you this year, my own as well as your teachers’: That you make the most of today for the sake of a great tomorrow.

If you dream of it and if you work for it, the best is yet to come.

* There’s actually a sixth time zone, also future-oriented, that I chose not to discuss here.

Note: Watch Prof. Zimbardo’s lecture as illustrated here.

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