We have been trying hard to turn the page of the calendar to a new year, but the bad karma of 2020 wants to linger. The unimaginable events of Dec 37 makes you wish we could skip ahead in time – or go back and change decisions. Usually, when I think about time, it’s from the vantage point of examining time as a commodity, as in, ‘wish there was more time for this or that’. Time usually seems in such short supply. Don’t you wish it could be mined and saved in a repository like a bitcoin?
What really is the nature of time? Can we suspend time, reverse it, or experience an alternate timeline? I don’t have the chops to figure this out — we need a quick trip to wiki! George is going to hate this, but I‘m going to need citations.
There are a number of definitions that can be found on the web. Some take the easy way out: time is what is measured by a clock, and so forth. Others approach time as a fundamental quantity, experienced as a sequence of events. Hen sent George and me an article which defined life as change. Is change also the essence of time as well: Time = Change? Simon and Garfunkel sang about the “leaves that are green turn to brown” – is that a function of a life cycle – or simply time? Does life depend on the action of time? Some philosophers, including Anne Conway believe that. In the 17th century, she put forward a view that life cannot exist without time… and that time is change.
Stephen Hawking* wrote a book, A Brief History of Time. He concluded that the arrow of time only moves in one direction: forward. In fact, he identified three arrows of time:
- Psychological arrow: the inexorable flow of existence – a sequence of events
- Thermodynamic arrow: the sense that in a closed thermodynamic system, time is represented by things losing coherence or degrading; the entropy of green leaves turning to brown
- Cosmological arrow: time was only introduced at the big bang and is measured by the continued expansion of the universe. If that’s true, then time may not be infinite.
If time is not infinite, what happens when time ends? Could it be that there is an eternal ‘Now’? If life is change, can life exist in an eternal Now? A great deal of meditative discipline is devoted to the goal of being ‘present’ and attuned to the NOW. Where does Now exist? The 6th President of the US, John Quincy Adams, wrote in The Hour Glass:
“…Time was – Time shall be – drain the glass –
But where in Time is now?”
Heidegger used the term “Dasein”, meaning that while we are all in the present, we are simultaneously anticipating and planning for the future. And if you consider that technically, our nervous system has a built-in delay in reacting to stimuli, our ‘present’ is already an artifact of history. The Now balances on a knife-edge.
Not only is time a finite quality, according to physicists, time is also relative. Einstein described it as follows:
“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”
Dr. E continued that time is affected by gravity, which can bend space-time and slow it down. That is why time proceeds faster at the top of the Eiffel tower, than at its base. Experiments are in process to physically slow time, as well as to measure its speed across quantum particles. These experiments are closely connected to properties of light. One such experiment recently measured the speed of light in zeptoseconds — one millionth of a second. This approach may change our lexicon: “In a New York Zepto”, or ‘just a zepto, Honey, I’ll be right there’. This could put “one Mississippi” in a bad spot.
However, I’m more interested in the experience of time – Hawking’s psychological arrow. Mainly, I view it as island hopping – from memory to memory. There are no objective time distances among these memories: some old memories seem vivid and close by, while other more recent memories have faded. Research suggests reasons: heightened emotional states can alter a person’s perception of time passages. George wrote about this in an earlier post, As Time Goes By; that for him time is measured in events – not necessarily in a linear progression. He’s in the same line of thought as Heidegger, who felt that time can only be understood as events in the past and only from the perspective of a fixed lifespan. I’d agree that time is only experienced in the rear view mirror of memory. Because so many moments are simply repetitions of daily tasks, they are completed with little ‘present’ attention. So when we talk about ‘being present’, what does this mean to you?
*Funny anecdote about Hawking. He decided to prove time travel was impossible by hosting a time travel party, but sending invitations after the event. Since no one showed up, he jokingly “proved” that the arrow of time cannot be reversed.
Time, Time, Time is on my Side
I’m trying to think of a way to define time without using the word “time.” I’m not smart enough. It is a measurement of the passage of WHAT? I can tell what it is measured in- seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, decades, centuries, eras, ions…..but that doesn’t help with the definition.
My perception of time is more based on experiences in my life. Time doesn’t appear to be a standard measurement. An hour today is much shorter than it was in my youth. A day used to be an eternity when I was in grade school but now it goes by so quickly that sometimes I feel I get up in the morning and the next thing I know I’m climbing back into bed. I find it is variable from day to day. Some days I can’t find enough time, or there’s all the time in the world and I can take time or I have time to give. Sometimes I’m ahead of time or it’s about time. Time is very flexible and isn’t consistently the same unit.
Time can be evaluative. I had a good time last night or I had a great time or even I had the time of my life! OR, I wasted my time, I had a bad time , or I had the worst time ever! When I evaluate my time I divide it into sections: childhood, college, marriage, post marriage, retirement, future. I can evaluate each section. College and retirement are in the time of my life category. Where other sections were good to great, and fluctuated therein. Fortunately, my bad times faded as good times replaced them.
That’s another aspect of time-you can do things with it. You can waste time, spend time, share time, you can even take time and even do things in timely fashion. Time has a mind of its own. It can lapse, drag, fly or be sensitive or even stand still, and sometimes it is even on my side, yes it is! And time is even different from one species to another. At the end of a year I am a year older but my dog is seven years older, whew!
I guess the point is we can’t live without time. Try to count the number of times in a day you say the word TIME. Sometimes you are referring to the scientific definition of time but more often used in different contexts: on time, in time, overtime, time and a half, once upon a time, time capsules, times up, yada, yada. OMG, I’ve had too much time on my hands! It’s bedtime anyway…
Wal has given me so much to think about in his presentation of time. It seems, as we grow older that its passage gives us pause to reflect upon it more and more.
For me, it is no longer the commodity it once was. Working full time took, well, lots of time. As Wal mentions in his piece, there never seemed to be enough time. Never enough time to get all the work done; to be an attentive parent/partner, or to adequately care for my emotional and physical health. As I got older I slowly moved from wanting to “find” more time, to realizing I needed to “make” more time for the things that mattered most. But still, there never was enough time. But now, mostly retired, single, and easily enjoying my completely independent children, I have all the time I need. Upon my retirement, I remember being asked by a colleague, what I’m doing differently with more time on my hands. “I can now change a light-bulb as soon as it goes out!” I replied. The hurried world I created in which every waking moment was accounted for, was no longer.
I like Wal’s comment regarding living in the now; “Our present is already an artifact of history.” I agree. Now is only here for that Zeptosecond before it’s behind us. However, can we not flow with the now? Isn’t our quest for mindfulness and awareness staying with where we are for as long and often as we can? The present always becomes the past but, not falling prey to thinking of what just past, can keep us one step ahead, in the present.
I had another thought about the notion Wal brings up from Heidegger’s explanation that time can only be understood as events in the past. Does this preclude the impact anticipated time (imagined time in the future) can have on us in the present? According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it. Perhaps the perception of time that hasn’t yet occurred but has had a measurable impact on one’s present life, can expand its understanding beyond past events.
As to the speed of time passing more rapidly for us when we’re older, some research suggests that over time the rate at which we process visual information slows down. Thus, we end up interpreting less information than we did when we were kids. As a result it feels like we get to the end of the day faster than we used to. The March 2019 blog from Harvard University entitled: No, Its Not Just You: Why time “speeds up” as we get older, explains this in more detail. I also remember reading that the more we remain habituated to our daily routines the more quickly we get to the end of our day. But, if we seek to insert new and creative challenges into our lives, the more the brain has to consciously process and our days seem longer, time seems to slow down.
On a related note, I want to recommend a wonderful four-minute movie created by artist and musician, Prince Ea. He puts time in perspective by overlapping the 4.5 billion years the Earth has been in existence with the approximately 140,000 years of mankind. If we were to consolidate that into a 24-hour period, we will have been around for 3 seconds! The video is entitled, “3 Seconds.”
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t include my relationship with being on time. I never was. I would usually leave for an appointment at the latest possible moment and then hope against hope that nothing would hinder or slow me down. Life almost always does! I was late for meetings and late picking up my children, and when I did arrive, I was usually stressed. One day, someone who also kept a calendar with a very busy schedule told me to write down the time to leave, so that I would arrive fifteen minutes early. Problem solved! I’m almost always where I need to be with time to spare and in a much more relaxed frame of mind.