I hear people utter the same phrases every December 31: “It all went by so fast” or “Where did the time go?” Then there are those who question the whereabouts of the last 10 or 20 years, suggesting time moves faster only for a persecuted few. Full disclosure: I am in that group. Such ruminations always make me curious as to our utilization of time, and why many of us often feel years have gotten by us without ceremony.
Surely, time has moved at the same rate in perpetuity and advances proportionally whether we are relaxing on a plush vacation, or suffering through a boring lecture, and it moves at the same speed for the wealthy as it does for the impoverished. Such observations bring to mind the paradox between depressed people, with whom I have had many conversations, who feel as if time crawls mercilessly, and of Hugh Hefner, who in the minds of many time could not move slow enough.
The reality of time is not that it flies or crawls, but that it is relentless in its demands to be taken seriously. Time allows for one chance at a particular minute, and only if we pile up wasted moments will we wonder where they went.
Any one of us who eschews responsibility for the way we spend our time surrenders authorship of our own life, and wastes further time wondering where time has gone. To do so laughs in the face of our existential freedom. Funny how freedom is a thing we value and waste at the same time.
I wonder how we would value life if we could use remote controls to pause a moment, or rewind a day to allow for a mulligan. I imagine days would lose meaning, and people would lose motivation. On the bright side, there are also no fast forward buttons. Therefore, time cannot be rushed faster than it is willing to move.
I imagine we perceive passage of time as rapid because memory allows us to zip to our past to recount any moment in our mental rolodex. Because we can close our eyes and arrive at a decades old family vacation, then dart back to the present in an instant, we perceive time as having flown by. What somehow gets disregarded are the countless opportunities available in the time between. If we try to advance a moment 10 years from now, we can’t, and if we try to project ourselves forward to that time, we realize it’s impossible.
There is a strong connection between time and regret. When we consider the word regret, we are impacted by its daunting presence. Wasted time is what most breeds regret, and regret is what most breeds death anxiety. In my work with the elderly, only those who feel they have accomplished what they set out to do, and who lived a life satisfactory by their own definition, have diminished fear of death. I have often been comforted by their peaceful countenance as they confront what I would rather avoid. On the contrary, those who feel much has been left undone sense the emptying of the hourglass, and it is they whom anxiety haunts.
Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse in Australia, was interested enough in death anxiety to have written a book outlining what terminally ill patients fear most about death. She found that the top five wishes of the dying are all connected to regrets about wasted time.
I am not suggesting we must be on the go every minute or achieve something every day. Certainly, even those moments we utilize to recharge our batteries are time well spent. The point is to keep an eye on the present and acknowledge its inherent value.
There is always going to be temptation to ruminate on disappointments of the past (depression), or perseverate on worries of the future (anxiety). However, if we succumb to such temptation, keeping one eye of the past, and the other on the future, then we have no eyes left to concentrate on the present, and that is exactly what creates the perception time flies. Perhaps staying in the moment is our best resolution for the new year.