One of the most consistent features of getting older has been the changing nature of my relationship with time. It’s not just, as the cliche goes, that it flies by, but the passing of days takes on a very different tone and architecture. I remember how agonizingly slow the world felt as a child. I remember staring helplessly at the clock in school, knowing that the very act of watching the hands tick was increasing my agony.
Tick. Fuck. Tick. Fuck. Tick. Fuck. Tick.
But lately, days blur seamlessly into weeks and months. Some of this is circumstantial; I now work entirely from home, and it is not uncommon that I go weeks without prolonged human interaction, even while I live in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. I have no commute. No morning or evening routine. I have virtually no interruptions during my day. I work. I read. I might play some games for an hour or two. I watch some lectures or a movie. I sleep.
When I look at the clock, there is no anticipation, nor any dread. Time is just a number to make sure I don’t forget my appointments. Once in a while, it’s a pressure, a deadline, a countdown — but I love my work, so I have no resentment for this aspect.
Memories begin to slip through my fingers more and more as there are fewer landmarks to orient my internal narrative. For perhaps a brief moment recent experiences stay near to me, but it’s not long before they disperse into a vast ocean of thoughts, or become lost inside the dense forest of my subconscious. Though I know these experiences are still a part of me, floating somewhere in the expanse of my cognition, many are no longer retrievable as distinct events.
At some point during puberty, I became aware of this concept of wasting time. I think I first heard it in reference to my hobbies — my video games were a decadent waste of time, I remember my elders announcing. The emotion of shame became linked with this idea. This divine resource, time, represented a kind of obligation, an inescapable imperative of my existence that must be satisfied. To waste my time was to waste my life.
Tick. Fuck. Tick. Fuck. Tick. Fuck.
The first few years after high school were when a number of dots began to connect. I finally understood that the way my peers had used their time was creating a path for them that was not open to me. The shame I felt about the allotment of my time transformed into a mire of despair. Where before I tangibly felt the expanse of time ahead of me in my life, it began to look as though I would have little choice in where my time was spent. I began to feel that in fact I had not wasted time, but borrowed it from my future without a way to pay it back.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that the squandering of time is actually quite hard to measure in the moment. The skills that turn out to be useful in life are hard to predict, and it’s turned out that nearly everything I wasted time with has transmogrified into experiences of overwhelming personal and practical value.
I lead a teen Bible study once when I was 16. I decided that I was going to share with my peers all the facts on how to refute Evolution and the Big Bang. By that point, however, I had developed the habit of googling anything and everything I might be interested in. I found a Christian physicist that explained cosmological redshift — the stretching of waves of light due to the expansion of the universe, resulting in a more red hue in the light we see from stars above. I spent the next 2 days furiously reading and preparing to share the exciting news with my peers that modern scientific theory was not incompatible with the account in Genesis. My experience there, at least in the narrative I’ve settled on at this point, marks when I began to drift from my fundamentalist roots.
It would take several years before many of the core concepts of evolution and cosmological theory actually sank in — really beginning with a viewing of Planet Earth while in a particularly enlightened state of mind. Something changed that night, in no small part thanks to the presence of my good friend, who gave me a task as I sat down to watch Shallow Seas for the first time:
As you watch this, think of all the countless, minute changes that took place over vast stretches of time, to result in the extraordinary adaptations these animals have.
I remember how my spine tingled when my mind’s eye zoomed out from the timeline of modern human history, to attempting to ponder the infinite possibilities contained within millions of years of mutation and selection.
Over the following years, as my imagination adapted to the scale of these new ideas, I became more interested in the nature of the universe as a whole. Cosmology and astronomy contain some of the most beautiful and stunning facts of any science, mainly because it provides new perspective on phenomenon we see and experience daily. Even simple things — like the fact that it can take thousands of years for a photon to travel from the solar core up to the surface, yet only minutes to traverse from the sun to the earth — offer fresh nodules of thought for consideration every time one steps into sunlight. Our world is powered by light that is likely older than the whole of modern human civilization. Our night sky is strewn with light older than all of mankind.
I remember when I first started driving on my own, how obsessed I was with going over the speed limit. There was this instant discontent that would arise every time I found myself stuck behind a car that insisted on adhering exactly to the speed limit. Yet, despite my desire to rush everywhere, I never managed to be on time. It took me nearly a decade of working various jobs before I learned the value of punctuality, and similarly, how to enjoy taking my time.
I often wonder what it would be like to live in a culture that wasn’t in a rush. I don’t hate the hustle and bustle of modern civilization; it’s invigorating, keeps everything vibrant and interesting. Yet it often seems like patience is perceived as weakness, apathy, or laziness. Maybe the problem is that we just can’t tell the difference — admittedly, the distinctions can be blurry.
It’s part of what I’ve come to love about trains. There’s so much that’s out of your control. The only choice you have is to sit and wait. You can’t rush a train — it’s going to move at a given pace regardless of your feelings on the matter. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can let your mind wander, to get lost in pondering the sorts of lives that the people sitting next to you might lead, to imagine the things you’ll do and say when you reach your destination.
We talk often of wishing we had time to pursue our interests and passions, but we also speak of making time for our priorities. We can be on time while simultaneously out of time. We take time off for the best of times and the worst of times, and we send children and hockey players to time out to give them a hard time.
The curious part is that this all makes sense to us. Not that it shouldn’t, but that if we were to perform such linguistic gymnastics with any other abstract concept, we would quickly tie ourselves into knots of confusion and miscommunication. Time is very special to us.
I tend to believe that, barring any truly disastrous world events, humanity has a pretty good chance at complete technological mastery in the next millennium. We’ll expand into the solar system, attain some limited form of immortality (as long as you’re willing to accept the ship of Theseus as a solution here), and our species might just outlive Sol — though it’s easily argued that we wouldn’t look anything like we do now at that point.
Sometimes I like to ponder the existential problems that would come with pseudo-immortality. Nearly infinite time stretching ahead of you — what would memories even look like, 80 centuries into that experience? How many relationships would we have? How many families would we raise? Boredom is a never-ending pest for us in our meager ~80 years on Earth; I shudder to think of what past-times might develop in a society with so much time on its hands.
That’s not the future that awaits you and I. It won’t be here nearly soon enough.
Every step we take is one closer to our last. We will see a finite number of sunrises and sunsets. We will crumble back to dust, and like most of those that came before us, we will gradually fade from society’s collective memory until we become anonymous members of an epoch in human history. In the timescales of the universe, our lives will register as less than a blip.
Death is, above all, a function of time. There’s a beautiful duality to that, as well; while death can bring some of the greatest emotional pain and agony humans are capable of experiencing, time is also far and away the most effective healer of the very torture it exerts upon us. Like footprints on the beach, gradually washed away by the waves.