Thursday, December 31, 2009

Elastic Time - A New Year's Wish

New Years always makes me think about the passage of time. I think about how quickly time seems to pass sometimes, and these days, I'm thinking more about how much time is left.

My favorite Steve Martin flick is “The Jerk” (1979), which has a cool scene that exemplifies the elasticity of time. Steve Martin tells his lover that days with her seem longer than normal. His girlfriend is asleep when he exclaims, “Our first day together seemed like a week. The second day seemed like five days. The third day seemed like a week again. And the fourth day seemed like eight days.”

Years ago, when I lived in Virginia, I was driving to a party with my wife. It was raining hard, and traffic on the Interstate was heavy. Then something totally unexpected happened. As we approached a curve in the road, the car didn’t turn with it. We were hydroplaning. The car slowly began to rotate in the wrong direction. It was a strange, helpless feeling. I saw two lanes of oncoming cars rushing from the other direction and I thought, “Well, this isn’t what I wanted.”

Fascinated, I watched everything as it passed by my field of vision. I saw the steady stream of cars rushing towards us. The car hit the median with a crunch and I felt each bump as we left the highway. At some point, all motion stopped. The car was still. We were still alive. We weren’t hurt. We were resting on the narrow median, facing the opposite direction. Traffic streamed by in both directions. We were lucky. Damage to the car was minimal, and we drove off the median to a repair shop. Later, we talked with amazement that we survived the accident and that the whole experience had taken place in less than two seconds.
Have you had that feeling when minutes seem like hours? Or when hours fly by like minutes? Naturally, I wish the good times would last longer, and I’d like to get past unpleasantness as quickly as possible. Why does time seem elastic? Isn’t an hour an hour, after all?

The answer lies in how you pay attention to what happens during an hour. The human brain manages new information by focusing attention on only one thing at a time. The more you concentrate your attention on what’s going on in the present moment, the more second-by-second memories you create. With your memory filled with rich details, a few minutes will seem to have lasted a much longer time.

Compare this to what it’s like to think about something. As you focus on your thoughts, your attention isn’t focused on what’s happening around you. New images aren’t taken in and stored in memory. You may shift your focus in and out of the present moment, but during that time you’ll have stored in memory only a few brief fragments of here-and-now experience, and in retrospect that period will seem brief.

When a friend of mine returned from a cruise to Alaska, she talked ecstatically about seeing massive glaciers and a flock of three dozen eagles. One of the eagles flew within twenty feet of her. “The first day seemed like three days,” she said.

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “To fill the hour—that is happiness.”

At the end, your life may seem like a single, boring afternoon, or it may seem like a thousand years. My New Year's wish for you is that you experience hours and days seem to last forever. Everything depends on how frequently you concentrate your awareness on the present moment with passionate intensity.

More about time...


Meredith Bell said...

What remarkable and important wisdom you've shared here, Denny. I strongly agree with your last sentence: "Everything depends on how frequently you concentrate your awareness on the present moment with passionate intensity."

Too often we miss the present moment entirely because we're re-living a past event or anticipating a future one. Because of this post, I will be more conscious of each minute while I'm in it.

Robert said...

Really good word Denny.

Kathleen Scott said...

Great post. I'm a believer. A fully-attended sunset passes outside of time.

Anonymous said...

When I was a professor, tangled up in others' agendas, I learned to simply recite, "I have all the time I need." It worked. Time seemed to expand so that no matter how much I needed to do within an allotted period of time, I did, in fact, have all the time I needed. I've played with time ever since and here's what I've learned; time is an illusion we create so that we can manage our time, which is, in fact, infinite.