I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately. It’s a subject that’s contemplated in countless scientific disciplines and addressed in many philosophical and religious beliefs. Time is seen as a flowing river to some. We drift along its currents as it carries us throughout our lives. It never stops, never turns back, always moving us forward toward our ultimate destination (in this life, at least). Others see time as a circle, eventually returning us to where we began.
Still others doubt time really even exists. Indeed, the concept of time is a human one and doesn’t exist outside of our own experience. What is time to a rock? To the ocean? What is time to the vast emptiness of space? It is meaningless. We give time meaning because we measure each moment of our days with increasingly smaller units. We are finite creatures whose existence in this plane is limited. There are 24 hours in a day. But why? Because that is how long it takes the earth to complete one rotation from our vantage point wherever we live. But that seems fairly subjective, doesn’t it?
Science felt the same way. How would you measure a second? It’s an interesting question. Physics and chemistry provide one answer. According to the International System of Units, a second can be defined thusly:
The second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium133 atom.
In fact, now all units of measure are based on the behavior of certain predictable atoms. Strange, isn’t it? Something we take for granted, like the length of a second, derives its very nature from something seemingly unrelated. What is a second? What is a day? What is a lifetime? Science has defined them all. Does a second feel like the rather wordy definition above? Sure, a second can pass exactly as physicists have described, but that is rarely how a second is experienced.
I believe experience is the key factor in how time truly flows. A second can seem like an eternity in certain circumstances, and an eternity can pass you by in an instant. What is a second? What is it really? I believe it is a perception. Time is what we want it to be. It is not a constant. It is something that bends to our will. We all possess the power to make time work for us, but very few of us actually exercise it.
I spent a good deal of time today out in my yard. I am the grumpy gardener, after all. I was tasked with tearing up the grass in our side yard so we can expand our garden to adequate sustenance providing levels. I started Sunday and hadn’t really touched the project until today. Here’s what it looked like when I finished Sunday.
This is no small task, as I am doing it by hand and with no power tools. Just a lot of shoveling and sweat. There’s no doubt that it’s a rather daunting task. A younger version of me might balk at a request to do several hours of painstaking labor out in the hot, unforgiving sun. Why would I want to spend my precious time working on something that won’t produce anything for a good while? Why would anyone?
I think these questions speak to a greater sentiment of society as a whole. We are almost always more interested in the outcome rather than the process. We want amazing, muscular, toned bodies, but we don’t want to spend time in the gym or alter our diets. We want a good, well-paying job, but we don’t want to spend the time educating ourselves and working our way up to that job. We don’t like working for things because working for things involve spending time. Time is a precious commodity to everyone. There is only a finite amount of time in a lifetime to accomplish every one of our goals. Or is there?
I said earlier that time is a human construct, and, as such, can be bent and manipulated to suit our needs. It is in our perception of time that we can change it. We see hard work as an impediment to our progress. We want results now; instant gratification is a mainstay of our society. We become myopic in our pursuits. We define what it is that will make us happy, whether it’s objects, people, positions, power, etc., and we set ourselves down a road to achieve and acquire these things. We set time-tables for ourselves to gauge our progress toward our goals. Milestones are identified and coveted. But what happens if we fall short of our goals? Often, we feel we’ve wasted our invaluable time. We can never regain the time we lost on our initial pursuits, nor can we easily predict whether we have enough time left in our reserves to start down a new path, toward a new goal.
But such is the case when the objects of our happiness are physical.
Here’s what I accomplished today. Not much, I know. But it made me happy. I spent a decent amount of time digging up earth and turning over soil. For most, not an ideal way to spend their day off, but not so for me. I enjoyed my time because I wasn’t focused solely on the outcome. I lived in the moment, not in the future. This is how I manipulate time. When we focus on the future or the past, time flows in whatever way it feels like. We have no control. It is only in the present that we can exert our will on the flow of time and alter it. Difficult times, like those spent waiting for news on a promotion or a new job, can be made more bearable and pass by seemingly in an instant. Good times, like those spent with loved ones or doing the things you love can be frozen in time, able to be lived in for an eternity.
This is a power we all have. The trick is not to ignore the past or the future, but to not live for them either. To unlock this power, one must exist and live in the present. It’s a simple concept. So simple, in fact, that I believe it is often overlooked, especially now in our fast-paced world.