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How Long Does the Present Last?

It depends.

Just the other day my wife and I stood beside our daughter as she was about to walk down the aisle to be married. I turned to our daughter and said, “Take a deep breath and look at everything because it will all be gone so fast.” In the whirling excitement of a wedding day, I wanted her to be as present as she could during this life changing celebration.

Imperial Beach/Seaburn
Source: Imperial Beach/Seaburn

It is difficult to be present even under the best conditions. I have been meditating for a few decades and I have still not made it past Meditation 101: practicing being here/now instead of there/then. If there were only some way to quantify the present moment, to take hold of it, then maybe I could recognize it better, study it, even understand it. As it turns out, some have tried. Using physicist Max Planck’s formulations, some suggest that the present lasts 10 to the -43 seconds, which is how long it takes a photon to do something that I don’t really understand. Others suggest that, based on electrochemical brain activity, the present moment lasts about 200 milliseconds. Adding to the lack of clarity is the recent finding that CT scans have found evidence that our brains make decisions seven seconds before we are aware of them.

So when exactly does the present moment occur? When I’m aware of it? Before I’m aware of it? Somewhere in between? Furthermore, if I walk along a railroad track at approximately five miles per hour for twelve hours, what are the chances that the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series?

Maybe quantifying the present moment isn’t much help. And yet being present, being alert to the now of our lives remains important, even compelling. I learned this anew this summer.

Imperial Beach 2/Seaburn
Source: Imperial Beach 2/Seaburn

In July I sat with my brother-in-law who was in home hospice with my mother-in-law. He was two weeks short of ending a ten year battle with cancer. It was clear that the present was vitally important to him because the future was so short. He busily put things in order, wrote his own obituary and coached me on how to conduct his funeral. He chose the music and the scripture. He reminded me that the reason we are alive is “to experience the fullness of life.” He had enough present time left to sum up, to make some sense of having been here in this world, to pass along his wisdom. A lingering present that was as rich as it was sad.

A month later, a young cousin of mine died suddenly, unexpectedly, witheringly. Nestled in the center of a very mundane moment, life just ended. No preparation, no lingering present, just an ending. Two hundred milliseconds, maybe less. No goodbyes. No summation. A silent scream and a dreary reminder that life is a damn short thing and that every single moment (I don’t care how you measure it!) is precious and exasperatingly ephemeral.

My wife and I escorted our daughter down the aisle, gave her kisses, embraced our new son-in-law and then went to our pew. I sat with a beaming smile and watched, listened, and felt something inside my chest that was just beyond words. Then it dawned on me that what I had said to my daughter was also for myself. It was not only about this special event, it was about everything that had happened this summer: “Pay attention! This will all go by quickly!”

Imperial Beach 3/Seaburn
Source: Imperial Beach 3/Seaburn

And, I might add, it is all breathtaking, no matter how sad at times, no matter how bewildering, no matter. When I am present in loss or joy I feel like I have slipped out of time and into an eternal present, if only briefly, and by doing so I come back into the daily-ness of living with a little greater appreciation.

David B. Seaburn is a writer. He is also a retired marriage and family therapist, psychologist and minister. His most recent novel is More More Time (

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