The Limiting Nature of our Perception of Time

What is time? What is this unit by which we measure our entire lives? Human beings, with our higher cognitive processing, are natural observers. As we observe the world and its nature around us, we create measurements for things in order to categorize and make sense of the divine chaos. Physicists define time as the progression of events from the past to the present into the future. This is visually represented by the hourglass (a device created to measure the passing of time), with the present being the center, or the narrowest portion of the glass, in between the expands of the past and the future. The sands of time are constantly flowing by and the present is ever escaping us. The past is a large accumulation of the many lives lived before us, and the future a seemingly endless bounty of potential and possibility. We must be careful with what we do in the present because of its fleeting nature, and the temptation to push off things for “tomorrow.”

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “leave nothing for tomorrow which can be done today.” To push something off is to fill your life with nothingness and waste. The thing in question is not being “pushed off,” rather your life is being filled with more emptiness and you are giving yourself less time to do what you actually want to do. It requires wild speculation and a great sense of entitlement to put off a task you are perfectly capable of performing right now to a point that does not actually exist in time as you know it. Time is as arbitrary as the electronic transition of the cesium atom, which defines the second (Source). The day as we know it — 24 hours — is how long it takes for Earth to complete a rotation around its axis, give or take a few minutes. On Venus a day lasts 5,832 hours, and on Jupiter it takes just 10 hours to complete its rotation (Source). So what exactly does Earth’s rotation have to do with your life and the tasks which have been assigned to it?

To procrastinate a task for even five minutes is to allow five minutes of your life to pass you by in waiting, and that is five minutes less of your entire life that you could have spent doing something worthy of your time instead of wasting your limited time. Most often the things we do when we procrastinate, we wouldn’t choose to do if we had more self-control. It is always amusing to me to see my students think they are pulling one over on me, their teacher, or their parents when they procrastinate their assignments. Little do they know they are only wasting their own time, and thus their own life. Assignment deadlines are another use of the measure of time. When something is “due” very soon, it gives us a sudden burst of energy and motivation to complete it. So why can’t we behave in such a way sooner? Time is arbitrary, especially when deadlines are assigned to us by others. We can create and structure our own time, as long as we are aware it is something fleeting that we will never get back, and to not do what we are supposed to will not harm anybody more than it will harm ourselves.

One of the biggest questions in science that has yet to be resolved is the irreversible nature of time. The 2nd law of thermodynamics can be an explanation for this. It states that within a closed system, the entropy (measure of disorder) either remains constant or increases. If the universe is considered to be a closed system, its entropy can never decrease. In other words, the universe cannot return to exactly the same state in which it was at an earlier point. Time cannot move backward. Time is simply a reference point we use to gauge the coming and going of events. As time passes, so does life, and this measurement gives us an idea of how much of our life we have lived, and how much life we might have left. As Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “For I am not Eternity, but a human being; a part of the whole, as an hour is part of the day. I must come like the hour, and like the hour must pass!”

We never know when we are going to cease living. My boyfriend’s mom is an ICU nurse and the other day she came home with a devastating story about a patient (as she often does). A twenty-something patient was in the hospital for cancer and had to go into surgery for a routine procedure, and came out brain dead. This story was so devastating to me because it was like a double punch in the throat. Being so close in age to the patient, I can’t imagine being diagnosed with cancer at an age where I’m just figuring out my life and getting started on bringing my purpose to fruition. Learning you have cancer at that point, your life is already fragile, and then during a routine procedure you lose oxygenation for too long and just like that you’re brain dead. You would think that you saw your death coming with the cancer diagnosis, but you had no idea…

To act as if we have some sort of control over time and our life’s place in its expanse is absolutely silly. The grasping for more time is simply death-denial disguised by control. We get what we get, and unfortunately we won’t ever know how much life that really is, until it’s too late. As Seneca, another great Stoic philosopher said in the aptly relevant work, On the Shortness of Life, “The part of life we really live is small. For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.” You can’t control time or the amount of living time you have on the earth, but you can control what you do with what you have. The greatest thing you can give is time. Time is more valuable than money, as it is the measure of life itself — and nothing beats that. So be careful about what you do with your time.

You have the right to say no to things that pull you away from your purpose, and into someone else’s drifting. You have the right to go after exactly what you want. Don’t waste time waiting for permission from anybody. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca quotes Epicurus, “The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.” We always want to be there when we’re here, or here when we’re there… We always want to be doing something else with someone else somewhere else… We need to stop acting as if we have all of the time in the world to waste. If you’re wasting time, you’re very likely avoiding something. I urge you to dig deep inside yourself for what that is, instead of giving into the flow of time and letting it pass you by. Life is too short to not ask all the questions.

To be scared to go after exactly what you want is filling your life space with fear and waste. Time is not wasted as long as you are giving yourself to something you find to be valuable. Life is indeed short, and we should not dillydally, but that should not render you impatient either. Epicetus wrote in Discourses, “No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” Nature has her own timing, as do people. The fig in this excerpt is analogous to us. To achieve anything, we must first blossom into ourselves, which takes time to live, have experiences, learn, and get to know ourselves. Then we must bear fruit, or dig our heels in and get to work on creating something meaningful. Then we must ripen, or perfect our craft so that it can taste sweet, and not bitter to the world when they taste it, so that they are able to be affected by it.

There are still the necessities of life we must deal with. It may feel like a waste of time to go to the grocery store and cook a meal instead of going to a fast food restaurant, but we must not ignore our biology. Such mundane tasks of life can actually service the purpose of our life. In cooking a meal, we are nourishing the body given to us that carries the mind that thinks and creates and moves. We are taking the time to be healthy, instead of copping out for the easier, quicker, greasier option that can end up harming our health and ultimately contribute to an earlier demise. So to take the time in the mundane tasks of our lives actually contributes to the longevity of our lives.

In his book, Atomic Habits, author and fellow blogger James Clear writes, “Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.” The curious thing about time is its compounding effect, as illustrated below:

Sometimes it may seem like there’s no point in striving for something that feels bigger than us, but it is only bigger than us in that moment. In this case, time is on our side, as long we take advantage of its compounding effect. James Clear makes the point that the reward will not be immediate, in fact, it will come later than we would even expect or like. So when you feel frustrated with your consistent efforts not paying off, or when you feel like it’s not even worth pursuing something, just think how else would you be spending your time? If we don’t want our life to be limited to the confines of time, if we want to live beyond it, we must put in our time now to the things that will outlast us beyond time, and enrich us during it. It is important to keep in mind too that the compounding effect doesn’t just apply to positive things like working toward a goal, but also to negative things too like bad relationships or bad habits. The little things add up, as they say a million little cuts are more painful than one large wound. Everything is a precedent.

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary. From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now, you are at the Olympic games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event.”

Epictetus

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