Tempus Fugit

What is it about the passing of time that makes it so variable? Yes, I know there are instruments that measure time quite accurately– they’re called clocks– and that every minute that passes is the same duration as the last. Same with weeks, months and years, right? Then why the hell do the years pass so quickly now compared to the days of my youth?

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

When I was a boy, I went on a school trip to Chester where we visited the cathedral among other places of interest. I don’t think I was more than nine or ten years old at the time. On touring the historic church, I was intrigued by the words on a plate affixed to a clock-case in the transept. It read:

When as a child I laughed and wept,
Time crept.
When as a youth I waxed more bold,
Time strolled.
When I became a full-grown man,
Time RAN.
When older still I daily grew,
Time FLEW.
Soon I shall find, in passing on,
Time gone.
O Christ! wilt Thou have saved me then?

Amen.

The poem was called Time’s Paces, by Henry Twells, and I felt oddly affected by the words, as though the message was meant for me personally. It gave me goosebumps and I didn’t know why. The words have stayed with me all these years and the older I get, the more they resonate with me. I’m not sure why the rhyme had such an impact on one so young– a nine-year-old doesn’t normally take in such profound sentiments– and why I’d think of it now all these years later and remember each line. Perhaps through time I’ve found a psychic link with myself, a wormhole through the ages, and it’s actually me, now, that’s sending a chill up the younger me’s spine as I stand before the clock in Chester. Oooo… I’ll have to think about that one; it could be a whole other blog.

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Photo by Gerd Altmann

The way time passes is surely a matter of perception, and depends on all kinds of influences, both physical and mental. The same final two minutes of a football match can be perceived in extremely different ways, depending on your point of view. If your team’s winning (mine usually is these days) by a solitary goal and the opposition is pressing hard for an equaliser, two minutes is an agonisingly long time to hold out. I mean, how can two minutes be enough time to score not one but two goals after playing ninety minutes of football? It happens despite the improbability, and those two minutes expand to a ridiculous amount of time. And if you’re supporting the team that’s losing by a goal (I’ll resist a clever dig at my brothers here), well, it’s like trying to hold water in a sieve, the time goes so fast it may as well not have existed in the first place.

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Champions

When it comes to time passing quickly as we get older, they say it’s because we measure time against our experience, a percentage of the life we’ve already lived. That’s why when we look back at our childhood, summer days were so long and school just wouldn’t end. A year in the life of a two-year-old is half a lifetime. Imagine having to wait half a lifetime for next Christmas, or your next birthday. The time in between those events would seem an eternity. While for those of us who’ve been around awhile, birthdays come by far too often, and it always seems like we just had Christmas. If a year is 50% of a two-year-old’s life, and time accelerates as a percentage of time lived… Sorry, I’ll let you do the maths on that.

A year in the life of a two-year-old is half a lifetime

There is a less depressing theory on the passage of time, other than the one where time shortens as we’re hurtling at light speed to the end of the line. It’s said that our perception of time is shaped by our exposure to new experiences and changes of environment. In other words, time passes more slowly when we are learning new things, taking on new challenges, or going where we’ve never ventured before. Our brains perceive the passing of time according to stimulating activity. When it has new information to process, time goes by slowly. This also explains why time passes slowly for kids, and fast for adults. Kids are constantly learning, and almost every experience is new and exciting. Whereas the older one gets, the less we see and do that we’ve never done before. So, according to this theory, familiarity not only breeds contempt, but it speeds up time.

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Photo by Adina Voicu

As we get older, we generally feel the need to slow down and enjoy life. We’ve earned it after all. But if slowing down to relax means speeding up the later years, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we go about it. We need to fill the days with new stimulation, take up new hobbies, challenges, travel. And next time we slow down to smell the roses, let’s make sure it’s a new variety. Maybe include some freesias and frangipanis, or go visit a botanic garden and learn something new about nature’s gifts. How about a trip across continents to see the great gardens of the world? The point is, if challenging the brain is said to slow down time, then bring on the challenges, I say.

Prague clock
Photo by Rick Lee

Whichever way you choose to look at it, our lives are short and we have to make the most of every minute. For me, I’ll take new and exciting any day of the week if it helps extend my time on earth. But then again, maybe I can find that wormhole and it will take me back full circle, a loop in time, and I’ll start all over again. I’ll find myself standing in front of the clock in Chester with its verse by Twells, and think: where have I seen that before, as the shivers stand the hairs on my neck, and my skin turns to gooseflesh. Oh, and by the way, it’s nearly Christmas again.

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Image courtesy of PIRO4D and Rick lee