Killing Time

Photo by Chris Lawton

Yesterday I was kneeling on the floor beside my infant brother, staring into his eyes and trying to make out the shape of my reflection in his pupils. For the first time in my memory, I wondered what it meant to exist. I guess I was weird then, too.


Yesterday I got my first job with a paycheck in a store that smelled like central air and whatever chemicals they put on the clothes I unpacked from giant boxes in the back. I paced in circles when my legs ached from standing still. I learned things, like how to fake-smile until your cheeks hurt, and that eighty years can elapse within an eight-hour retail shift.


Yesterday I walked home from the grocery store in stride with my future. At one point in our commute, I looked at him and asked, in the rhetorical way, isn’t it strange how we got here? Here meaning Brooklyn, New York, engaged, feeling old and yet on the precipice of some new beginning. Isn’t it strange and comforting – or unnerving – to think we will come to know many new normals? New homes, new routines, new “I’m old” birthdays and aha-moments in between.


Yesterday I found a gray hair and reminded myself not to envy the youth because they’ll get here eventually.


And then yesterday I was asked to write about the most precious gift and greatest fear I — or anyone — will ever struggle to know: time.


Our relationship with time is complex. Why does it move slowly when we’re young and then speed through later chapters of life? Why does time crawl through the weekdays and sprint through the weekends? Why does it cut short the moments when we’re having the most fun? Why does time bring loneliness? And crow’s feet and gray hairs? Does time move faster at higher altitudes? And can all these things — the acceleration of time and proliferation of its bleaker offerings — be dissected and explained, and is it worth it to try? What if reality is in fact timeless, and the past, present and future are more fluid than we think?


It is difficult to talk about the things we don’t fully understand. Time is no exception. People say time is money, time heals, time steals, time drags, time flies. By definition, time is an indefinite continued progression, but also a precise point of measure. Time is a tangle of contradictions.


Because we cannot see and touch time, we study and measure it, dividing and subdividing eternity as designed by the laws of physics and the cosmos into years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. We compartmentalize these increments into calendars and planners and attach goals and deadlines to specific dates. We mark time with age. Then we curse it. In moments of suspense, we count it in reverse. We are helpless as time moves through us — or as we move through time. We are oblivious while the minute and second hands tick audibly in their circles, or silently in our digital devices. We can’t see or feel time, but we know it’s there. Like gravity. Apparently they’re connected.


In 1897, a French philosopher named Paul Janet posited an idea: if you live to be 100, half of the life you perceive is over by the age of 7. It’s a depressing thought, but not a shocking one. When you stop and think about it, every passing year is a smaller and smaller fraction of your story. At age 1, a year is 100% of your life. At age 30, a year is 3.33% of it. Relative to your entire timeline, each successive annual chapter is a smaller portion of accumulated memories than the last. It’s a matter of ratios.


About 138 solar orbits after Janet’s theory, a survey was conducted in Munich by psychologists Marc Wittmann and Sandra Lenhoff. In a 2005 study, they polled 499 participants ranging from 14 to 94 years old about the pace at which they felt time moving, from “very slowly” to “very fast.” The subjects' perception of time for shorter durations (e.g. a week, month, year) did not appear to increase with age, as most of them felt the clock ticked by quickly. “But for longer durations, such as a decade, a pattern emerged: older people tended to perceive time as moving faster. When asked to reflect on their lives, the participants older than 40 felt that time elapsed slowly in their childhood but then accelerated steadily through their teenage years into early adulthood.” (Scientific American)


So time flies, and as we age it flies faster.


According to psychologists, we perceive time from two perspectives: a prospective vantage (while it’s happening) and a retrospective one (when the party’s over). Both are subjective and deal with experience, memory and hindsight — all of which shape the sensation of time’s slippery slope into our pasts.


Our brains are hardwired to code new experiences into memory, but the familiar ones escape this neurological filing system. If our perception of time reflects our collections of memories, the periods of our lives dominated by mundane rhythms will seem more fleeting than our more formative years, when everything is novelty. The good news in this scenario is we can alter our perception of time by building synaptic connections through new skills, ideas, and environments. Life is short and ever shortening. What better excuse to take the long way home. Or a vacation. You’re welcome.


When examining technology’s influence on the human-time relationship, it’s fair to speculate that our digital dependence has been a less-than-helpful coping mechanism for navigating the aging process. The average person will reportedly spend about two hours a day on social media, or 5 years and 4 months over a lifetime, according to a Mediakix study extrapolating data to a span of 66 years. These numbers are expected to increase as the platforms to which we tether ourselves continue to develop, vacuuming up the free time we might otherwise spend cultivating new memories and hobbies, or reading a book.


There is evidence suggesting that our near-constant use of technology makes us more efficient in processing information, which in turn speeds up our perception of time. Equally unnerving are the correlations between heavy social media use and feelings of social isolation. A report co-authored by Brian Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, found that people between the ages of 19 and 32 who spent more than two hours a day on social media had twice the odds of experiencing loneliness than those who said they spent a half hour per day or less on these sites (AJPM).


Of course, it is how we use the technologies available to us today that will determine their impact on our happiness and overall acceptance of age and time. To that end, it’s important to question our compulsion to over-document. In 2015, there were eight times more people taking pictures than 10 years ago, with 4 billion people creating 1.2 trillion photos per year, primarily on smartphones (Amateur Photographer). Snapping a photo today requires less thought; we don’t have to ration our film or worry about space. The cloud is infinite, for a price.


Everywhere I go, I carry thousands of frozen moments from my own story — a mosaic of my history to revisit and reconstruct in filters and apps. I have access to the fragments of lives shared publicly by billions of other time-killers around the world. I can post a status update or an image, even capture a tragedy unfolding in real-time, and then wait for affirmation of its acceptance to arrive in the form of a like or a comment or an emoji. Technology allows us to construct and construe reality in ways beyond imagination.


We spend much of our younger lives surrounded by peers and encountering new, memory-forming experiences. And then, with luck, we survive into a more secure stage of existence. As we weed out the fluff of our youth and identify priorities, our lives narrow around routines. New habits can form in periods of transition, not always to the benefit of the self. In the everyday monotony, it’s easy to slip into ways of thinking that blind us to the more soul-nourishing opportunities we might otherwise embrace in this fast-forward slow dance into old age. Especially when it’s so easy to compare yourself to a network behind a screen.


Today, the planet is more heavily populated than at any other point in its young history. We are more connected than ever. And yet here we are, feeling alone. Even when our lives give the appearance of fullness in the digital evidence of ourselves we create, our tendency is to question what is missing, what could have been different, and what is yet to come, rather than what is here and now.


Time is cruel in its elusiveness. When we have it to spare, we burn it. Teens push and speed through it. Young adults are especially gifted in wasting it. New parents have none of it, and yet their children embody it. The middle-aged race to slow it down or even reverse it. In the golden years of retirement, we finally have time to consider just how little of it we have left.


To better accept ourselves and our place in the universe, at any stage in life, we must actively cultivate our peace with and within it. My mother, a 60-something empty-nester in Maine, sets an inspiring example.


I recently phoned her with some vague questions about time and loneliness and technology. Her wisdom was predictably plentiful: “We need the commas in life. Embrace the negative space. What we develop in solitude is what sustains us forever.”


One thing that is reliably understood about time is that our experiences within it are shaped by perception. And perception, like reality, is malleable. We can’t change the past, but can we shape it in the present? In the negative space, mold the memories that become the yesterdays you’ll reference when you seek perspective later in life. Try it. Or don’t; and one day your future self will agree with me when I say, Yesterday I was killing time.


Did You Know?

  • Heavy social media usage is linked to feelings of social isolation in young people. (Primack et al., AJPM)

  • The average person will spend about two hours a day on social media, or 5 years and 4 months over a lifetime. (social media today)

  • Half the life you perceive is over by age 7. (Washington Post)


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