A Timely Lesson From the Election

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During the 36 extra days of the presidential election, commentators searched for what the whole thing told us about our politics, our republic, our system of government.

But I've found myself thinking about how it affected something a little more immaterial than that: our sense of time.

In America, we pride ourselves on having things done yesterday. Of late, we are all supposed to be working on "Internet time," which seems to mean that everything must by done by the day before yesterday.

But the election was not accomplished in "Internet time." It was more in keeping with 18th-century standards, when the founders allowed weeks for electors to get to their capitols by horseback, and letters sometimes took months to reach their destination.

We have a nagging perception that if things don't get done on time, all hell will break loose. On election night, we've been trained to expect the networks to call states the instant the polls close. We want results — and we want them now. And then, suddenly, there was no result on election night. There was no result the next day. There was no result for three dozen days.

And nothing really went awry. Chaos never did ensue. We now have a president whom everyone seems to accept as president. Yes, he has a little less time for what pundits call "the transition," but new presidents always stumble around for the first couple of years anyway, so what does a delay of a few weeks matter?

I suspect that the leisurely conclusion to the election has made us a little looser about time and deadlines in general. If we don't have to elect a president on time, why exactly should my mortgage check be in on time? Or what does it really matter if the new TV I ordered is delivered a couple of days after they promised? Or, hey, why should I turn my story in by the deadline? What difference will it really make?

The point is, the earth won't stand still if certain things are late. Deadlines, even constitutional ones, are arbitrary. They are lines drawn in the sand. (There are some natural signposts, of course; the winter solstice was yesterday — the sun doesn't tarry.)

Dates and deadlines really exist to keep society functioning in an orderly fashion. They are things we make up and adhere to in order to make everything run smoothly. April 15, tax day, is just a date on the calendar; there's no reason it couldn't be April 1 or May 1. It's arbitrary, and arbitrariness is not all bad. (It was Justice Felix Frankfurter who said, "If you can't be fair, be arbitrary," and the U.S. Supreme Court seems to have followed his advice.)

But a life without arbitrary dates could get a little dull. "Is there no change of death in paradise?" the poet Wallace Stevens wrote. His idea was that paradise would be infinitely tedious because nothing ever really changed, and it is change that makes life interesting.

I spent the first 30 years of my life being late for things. I even had silly little aphorisms that I would say when I was late, like "Punctuality is the thief of time." But then one day I woke up and realized how lazy and immature being late was, and how rude — because it says, 'My time is more valuable to me than your time is to you.'

So, yes, let's stick to dates and deadlines. But also remember that if you're a few days late — even 36 of them — it's the ultimate result that matters, not when it was arrived at.