THE ILLUSION OF TIME
Dee Chadwick
13 Oct 2019
A friend recently posted on Facebook about how quickly the past year, since her wedding day, had flown by and seemed like only a few months ago. Another friend agreed with this. As for myself – I could have very readily accepted that her wedding had been at least two years ago. Such differences in our illusions around time involving the same event and the same here and now.

AGE AND TIME

Is it just me that feels that time is whizzing by so much more quickly as the years pass by? But, if that is the case, how does my concept of time since the wedding fit in with this? Is it that each of my weeks seemingly flies by, with a Sunday seeming to be very swiftly followed by yet another Sunday. So that, for me, it feels that there have been a lot of Sundays, weeks, even months since that lovely day. At times, it feels as if someone has altered our calendar away from the Gregorian one and that the weeks now only contain three or, at the most, four days. Is it because I am on the downward slope, so, although my body is slowing down, my idea of time is running away with me? Fortunately, my mind is currently taking up a slot somewhere between these two – long may it remain so.

When we are children, time is a strange concept to us. We are told to wait five minutes – and then we will get help with our puzzle, our homework, whatever. It seems like an awful long wait for a little one, especially as for the adult, it was simply a nominal time span thrown out. A time span which usually bore no resemblance to actual time elapsed. A time span often introduced to buy said adult a whole lot longer than those five minutes.  One of the many confusions of practical maths I’m afraid – going along with who is to have the biggest half of the piece of cake! As a teacher, when trying to introduce the concept of time and fractions to young minds, such comments only added to the confusion that was there for many. Waiting for the penny to drop as they grasped that a half is always a half – two equal parts of something; just as five minutes is always the same length of time, no matter which clock is used. Unless, that is, we go into the concept of the relativity of time as recognised in such as theoretical physics. I think for me to even begin to get my head around this, I need to do far more than watch Professor Cox on television!

For those children, with so much anticipation, things to look forward to, time can seem to go very slowly. Though by the time that teenage years are reached, things can have become much more flexible with exams, homework deadlines seeming to come round far more speedily than positively anticipated happenings. To further confuse the issue they lose all track of any time scale when they are texting friends whilst supposedly getting ready for a meal, a family trip out or helping out with a task. Even with a verbally yelled reminder including a countdown, time really is an illusion for them.

So, maybe, time can seem to be a very variable factor depending on where we are, what we are doing and with whom we are doing it? Whether we are looking forward to something such as a get together with friends, or dreading something such as a hospital appointment. I guess that this remains a constant variable – if that isn’t too much of a contradiction in terms – no matter how many candles on our cake. Maybe that little man in the picture at the beginning shovels the sand more quickly at times, whilst at others he has his foot blocking the exit so that time seemingly slows down.

IS IT ACTUALLY LIKE THIS?

It appears that there are theories about time related to age. As ‘science focus’ says - ‘It may simply be a matter of perspective. After all, one year to a five-year-old is a significant portion of their lifetime to date, yet to a 60-year-old it is just a tiny fraction. Other experts say it has more to do with how, the older we get, the more familiar life becomes, and the more we ‘chunk’ our experiences into basic categories like ‘work’, ‘commuting’, ‘shopping’ and ‘home life’.’

There are also those who feel that by having mindfulness practise in your life, you may have a different concept of the passing of time. You include a focus on the here and now that can make time feel to pass more slowly. I do include mindfulness in my life and am aware that I feel as if I slow down when actively using it. However, I am not aware of it affecting a broader view of time and its passing. Then again, maybe without mindfulness my life would feel to be going by even faster.

TIME LINES AND CYCLES

For mankind, our march through time begins at conception, we are born, we grow and we age until we die. Our time line here on earth has a finite beginning and end. However, life may involve a more complex time line dependent on beliefs. Whether we believe that we return in another form, or another body, or enter into a post-earth existence is a discussion for other than here. What is known is that time on earth is one which cannot be physically reversed or even made to stand still, no matter how many botox injections and physical nips and tucks we may succumb to. What a good thing it is to have our memories to re-live past times, past events, especially if those memories are ones which bring us happiness.

However, we live on a planet which is filled with cycles which affect our lives, our ways of being. The cycles of the moon, the seasons which keep winding on, though seemingly subjected to change with our changing climate. Are they not as predictable as they used to be? Maybe it is that memory of ours that makes the remembered summers warmer, the winters colder. Is it part of climate change, or just another illusion? Will these changes affect those who still live their lives regulated by nature’s patterns?

What of those of us in the western world? We who have largely set aside our time and routines that were influenced and controlled by the seasons. Routines based around going to work in the fields at daybreak to return at dusk. Eating produce available during each season. This has long been set aside as we gradually developed the ability to break free of former restrictions. Now, we favour reliance on the concept of time as shown on a watch, a phone, to tell us when we have to be at A or B, no matter where the sun is in the sky, no matter what the temperature or the weather in general. Those of us who garden, or farm, manage to keep a link with the patterns of old through the growth of and our nurturing of the plants around us, though we do bend the rules with our heated greenhouses.

Man has invented time zones in order to allow us to enforce our concept of time and time keeping on a world that continues to rotate giving our daytime and nocturnal cycles. Zones that enable us to apparently move backwards or forwards in time, to lose or gain time as an individual traveller left coping with the dreaded jet lag!

We have evolved the concept of the existence of a past, present and future. A concept that can become confused with a physical state. When we think of them, we consider how things were, people behaved in ‘the past’ or how we may live, dress, act in ‘the future’. Past, and future are concepts that are inconsistent in some enclaves of the world. A Scientific American article explains how the Yupno people in Papua New Guinea view time. ‘His gestures expressed the Yupno way of understanding time, one in which the future is not something in front of you - it is uphill. By having interviewees change sitting positions, we were able to show that it does not matter whether the slope is in front of you, behind you, to your left or to your right. The Yupno conception of time is not anchored to the body, as the Western one is, but to the world and its contours.’

This differing way of describing time doesn’t belong solely to the Yupno people – for example, in the Andes, those who speak the Aymara language see the past as being in front of them and the future behind. An Aboriginal Australian community, make use of the points of the compass with east determining the past and west the future. However, are these simply examples of differing ways of communicating time to others? Just as we may point forwards when speaking of things yet to happen and indicate back over our shoulder when talking of past events?

Sometimes that communication can let us down when we speak of time. If someone says ‘next Thursday’ on, say a Tuesday, to me, that indicates the Thursday of the following week. For others, it means just two days ahead. One reason why I always try to include the date as well as the day when making appointments!

COMPLEXITIES OF TIME

So, it turns out that a consideration of time is a lot more complex than checking our watch, setting an oven timer, writing an appointment in our diary.  For a start, maybe, as Einstein’s theory of relativity states, time isn’t constant? Just as with those time zones, the concept of time is something that humankind developed in order to be able to co-ordinate happenings outside of the natural cycles. Cycles which apparently were no longer an adequate measure by which life could be measured or delineated.

We have gone on to be ruled by this illusion. Opening hours for businesses, for shops. Transport having to run ‘on time’ in order for us to reach our destination ‘in time’ for our meeting. How great I find it now that I am not so tightly tied to the ticking on of my watch as I used to be. Having said that, I have still not been able to step away from the idea that I much prefer to be early rather than late for any appointment, though that was a topic for previous discussion (blog - 'Time').

Going by the rumbling of my stomach rather than the hands of my watch, I feel that the time has come for me to step aside from the illusion of time and prepare lunch. But before I do this, I cannot end a piece about time without mentioning the great achievement of Kenyan marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge.  On Saturday, he broke the two hour barrier for a marathon run. OK, he had modern technology support by way of a lead car shining a green laser beam across the road ahead if he was within the timings to finish in under two hours. He had a team of forty-one unsung runners in support, sharing the load (see Blog - Helping a Friend who is Struggling), setting the pace. But, he did it – he broke that two hour barrier. For me, this brought back memories of Roger Bannister breaking the four minute mile record back in 1953 and American Jim Hines being the first to break the ten second 100 metres in 1968, though I always feel that he must have been rather miffed to have two others go on to do the same, on the same day! All feats that at one time, we were assured were beyond the ability of humans to achieve. All feats based on that illusion of time and how it has become an important part of our way of being.

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