Human Working Time

In dentistry, there’s a term for materials called “working time.” We us a lot of materials which start out as a pliable liquid or paste, but after a few minutes set into a less movable solid. If you’ve ever had to get an impression of your teeth for braces or a crown, you’ve experienced working time firsthand. If you’ve ever used putty to fill a hole in drywall, likewise.

For us, working time represents  how long we have to make changes, to manipulate and troubleshoot, pack and shave, add and subtract, before the given material starts to set and can no longer be bent without breaking.

Lately, I have been thinking about the human equivalent to this pliable, workable state.

Human Softness
When I looked at my friend’s 2-month-old earlier this week, I could not escape the thought that for someone that soft, everything is making an impression. Everything is shaping her, molding her, changing her–her own brain is changing itself moment by moment.

Everything about her is soft–her hair, her skin, her tiny mouth and hands and feet which are all still fidgeting randomly as they figure out what to do with themselves when she’s not asleep. Even her bones are soft–something I found out as I worked to arrange my arms to cradle both her body and her floppy head.

I have heard that this is part of why mothers go crazy about what goes into their children’s bodies–adults seem somehow already corrupted, but there is something so pure and malleable about a baby that makes reasonable mothers suddenly terrified of everything from baby food to vaccines to the Internet–surely a creature so pure and so soft would be immediately corrupted by contact with anything remotely less pristine.

And at the same time, parents also go crazy trying to take advantage of this malleability. Starting gymnastics and dance and music and language and every other kind of instruction earlier and earlier is all part of the frenzy to squeeze as much as possible into this precious, brief window.

Human Setting Time
It makes sense, of course. Anyone who has tried as an adult to learn a language or do the splits or master an instrument knows that learning with a non-plastic brain (and body!) sucks. As adults, we kind of get used to being old dogs and often resign ourselves to the old tricks we have.

In a similar vein, I kind of felt that when I graduated college–four years that rocked my intellectual and spiritual life–I was pretty much formed. Of course, intellectually I learned and grew a lot more in dental school, but spiritually I often felt like I was just adjusting my balance around a place that I’d already settled. Each morning I would read the Bible and pray; each Sunday I would go to church and Bible study–and I thought, these are like haircuts and wardrobe changes around a person who is already grown.

The times I’m shaped are not limited to explicit “shaping” times.
Now, after three months of married and working life, I still feel like I’m not so terribly different from the graduated senior who watched Ohio fade in the airplane window as she headed for Boston, Massachusetts. But I am getting a sneaking suspicion that big changes to me are still happening under my nose, and that in fact the times I’m shaped are not limited to explicit “spiritual time” sessions like church or morning devotionals.

Rather, everything that happens to me now, and everything I go through can shape me–and it can shape me more, if I let it. This article at Desiring God made me think about goals, and at first I thought about “doing” goals–things I might achieve for God’s sake. But then, I think the Spirit made me pause before I wrote down a bunch of resume goals.

Maybe, he seemed to suggest, goals as a Christian are not so much about doing as they are about being.

Not to say that doing isn’t important–we will be judged by what we build in this world, as 1 Corinthians 3:13 tells us–but the nature of one’s labor can only reflect the nature of her heart.

The past few years have included a lot of unexpected shaping, from the gauntlet of my board exams to the joys and trials of leading a small group to marriage and work itself. I’d like to think that as I learn to see life’s setbacks and complexities as part of the shaping process, as I learn to put words to the shaping I’m experiencing, I’m experiencing even more shaping. And all of this works toward my ultimate goal of being more like Jesus in who I am, as well as what I do.

Photo (c) 2007 Raphael Goetter, 


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