Insight Therapy

Psychologically informed reflections on how we interact.

Big, Hard, and Lost: It’s About Time

Contemplating the meaning of time: a time-honored, timely pastime

My daughter turned 18 recently, which occasioned all manner of reflection, but mainly seemed like a good time to think about, well, time. A tricky subject, that; as anyone who‘s ever tried to meet a deadline, endure a committee meeting, or truly comprehend relativity theory will tell you.

Time is something you have, although less and less of. You're always running out of it. Nobody ever walks out of time. Even if it takes a while, you will slowly run out of time.

Time is also something you do, albeit mostly in prison, which also makes the time you do hard. And if you don't want to do time then you'd better find time to do your taxes, because that takes time, and time is money, and money tends to run out after taxes. 

Time also does things to us, of course; mostly bad things (I'm old, my eyes are fading) that we spend a lot of time telling ourselves are not that bad (I'm wise; I always liked dogs). We also try to make time, although in order to make time, you need to clear some time, and what time is actually made of remains a thorny philosophical question. It appears on close inspection that time is made entirely of, well, time.

Time is also a gift; you can buy time, and many people seek to buy free time. But if you can't, then it better be quality time, because you don't want to waste time; or at least you don't want to appear as if you don't know what to do with your time, which is how I appear when I wait for my daughter to finish her shopping at the mall, where she is spending my money like there is no tomorrow.

You can have high time and you can have down time, although it's better to wait for the down time to get high. Don't do it on company time, which is often crunch time, or money time, which, if time is money, as most companies claim it is, doesn't really make sense to say, and also sounds funny, particularly if you're high. 

Time is often lost, and they say you can't make up for that; but losing your sense of time is considered a desirable thing, a sign that you're having a good time.

Time is something you can look for, like a piece of clothing: I'm looking for the right time to fit you in, and I'm looking for the right jeans to fit into. Unlike with clothing, though, you can also bide your time, that is wait; but for what? Well, for the right time. 

Time has a paradoxical quality. When we say that something is timeless, we mean that it will probably be present for all time; so timeless means having all the time. Einstein once said something to the effect that an hour on a park bench with a beautiful woman can seem like a minute. But a minute on a hot stove would seem like an hour. He called that phenomenon ‘relativity,' and won a Nobel for it. That's big time. Although if you try to put a beautiful woman on a relatively hot stove, I think you will end up doing hard time in the big house.

Sometimes (there's no escape...), time can seem both fast and slow at once. For example, raising your daughter to be 18 has that quality. Only yesterday she was running around in her diapers! Those 18 years have slipped by in a flash! But the last time I changed a diaper seems like lifetimes ago.

Since time is so slippery and amorphous, we try to organize, manage and control it. There is nothing inherent, after all, in this age of 18 that would warrant my sudden bout of reflection on time. It's just a moment, ostensibly like any other moment in the endless flow of time, made meaningful only by the consciousness that beholds it and the devices that track it. In other words, time exists only in the systems that notice and keep it. In other words, we invent time. But you don't have time to spend on such thoughts, unless you're high, or planning to major in philosophy in college, which is kind of one and the same, and which my daughter assures me she definitely is not. She's actually not quite sure what to major in and which classes to take. I think she should take her time. I want her to take her time and have the time of her life.

Because watching your daughter grow up and your eyes fade out, you know the time of your life is not timeless. You realize, with time, that it ends. This, of course, is timeless knowledge. Here's Omar Khayyam, Persian poet and mathematician circa 1100:

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!

 

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein College and a practicing clinical psychologist in Columbus, Ohio.

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