“My, how time flies!”
Note: This post was written and edited as part of an exercise in couple’s counseling with my wife. In the session, I stated that I *loathe* when someone says, “My, how time flies…” because I so vehemently disagree. The counselor pushed me several times to move past my own logical, analytical responses, repeating this question several times:“But what’s the *feeling* behind that?” After this work — and since my wife had a contradictory view — I was asked to write out my perspectives on this statement and idea of time, before eventually considering my wife’s opinion.
“My, how time flies!”
No. Time passes relatively consistently. What flies is our perception of an intangible concept.
(Of course, this excludes, the physical ‘relativistic’ effects of time passing differently as one approaches faster speeds, close to and and approaching the speed of light. But in our normal human world, these effects still don’t affect us at any practical level —quantum nutritional hypothesis aside.)
What changes, then, is the perception of a memory or the passage of time relative to our present age. One helpful analogy is to consider our lives as a book-in-writing, with each page representing an entire year. As a ten-year old reminisces on the past year, being ten percent of his or her life, the year represents a rather large chunk of time. Moreover, because in the first few years of life we don’t form very stable memories (luckily for us!), the most recent year is even more significant. It’s as if the first few years of our lives are represented by the first few physical pages of most books: copyright, blank page, title page, second blank page, etc. Perhaps these pages are important, but there’s not much content there.
However, for a 30- or 50- or 70-year old, the most recent year is but another page in a book of solidified experiences. Now compare the 10-year old with the 70-year old. One page of the child’s ten-page book contains a lot more content relative to her life versus one page compared with the adult’s seventy-page essay, yet each is exactly one page. Perhaps that specific year holds more memorable changes, like a marriage, move, death, financial change, or otherwise. But in all likelihood, for the senior, the past year was mostly routine maintenance of the previous decade, with a few extra memories, both good and bad. “That’s relativity, folks!” For the 70-year old, if the past year seems to have “flown” by at a quicker rate, but this is an illusion, because the year is being compared to an entire human lifetime of experiences.
A year is a year is a year — what changes is our perception of it. If the individual, in a calm, focused setting, closes the eyes and truly reflects on that single year itself, without allowing the mind to wander to previous year’s memories — a challenging meditative task, to be sure — any year should feel like a year.
My greatest issue with the “time flies…” statement is that I am disappointed in — or saddened by, I suppose — my elders. Remember that old story featuring the protein-rich food product Soylent Green, made for the masses? We solved society’s population and hunger problems by taking our elderly/infirm and liquefying them into food! That should remind us of the importance of our seniors. They may not contribute in a direct economic sense to our society, but what is their purpose? It is wisdom! Or, at least, the purpose of our elders is to pass on wisdom, to guide us against repeating their mistakes, and perhaps to help care for children.
I desire wisdom from my elders, but when I hear statements like “time flies,” I feel as though they are failing their natural human duty to educate me and pass on the knowledge of the sages.
Are my standards are too high?
The older the dog, the harder to teach new tricks. This is all the more true for changing ingrained beliefs and mental patterns as we age, so I often do not challenge the speaker. On rare occasion I will, asking “How does time seem to have passed by more quickly?” and again “…but how exactly?” Sometimes I might let the debate continue, with, “Have you been taking actions to slow life down so you form memories more solidly?” At other times I might ask a similar question. But most of the time, I simply listen patiently and silently disagree.
Part of what irks me about this statement is that for some, time no longer moves slowly for a reason which should be obvious: they are too ‘busy,’ without enough ‘idle’ time for introspection. (This is particularly true for many middle-age, working, “successful” westerners.) The word ‘idle’ or ‘bored’ has negative connotations in our society, particularly in the U.S., yet these periods of brief, low-stakes breaks in our day are critical. They are as necessary to living happy, productive days as periods of vacation are to happy, productive years. Some people are so ‘busy,’ with those few moments of slow contemplation far too rare, that when a previous moment of solitude or introspection comes up, their immediate instinct is to think “My! How the years have passed so quickly!” I retort: No, they haven’t! You were simply too caught up in the modern business of life to slow down and reflect!”
Thus the solution to “time passing us by” is simple: to obtain more time, simply move more slowly! Focus more, meditate, learn new skills, read, dance, break routines, take a psychedelic, slow down, challenge yourself. It really is that simple.
We may come to posses great fortunes, travel beyond the Earth, parent many children, or have any of an infinite number of experiences in out lives. But in the end, there remains one experience which is both inevitable and unknowable, that inaccessible memory of the deceased: our obvious mortality. This is probably the reason we do not reflect enough on our memories. Eventually, the reflection brings up the an uncomfortable projection: the idea of our future death. We think: I have wasted this month or that year, and someday I will die, and then what will I have to show for it? Or: I have had a life full of great people and memories, and/yet I feel ready/unprepared to face my ultimate fate.
Life is a death sentence, to be sure. To live is to die! Yet seniors — nay, all of us — should know that a long life dooms no one to live the final remaining years with any less joy. Said differently: let’s spend less time reminiscing and more time living.
In the eyes of my wife:
My wife is significantly younger than me, and while she doesn’t often state this phrase herself, she ‘resonates’ with it in a way which makes her curious and confused as to why I hate hearing others’ say it. She was never really able to understand my perspective until the particular counseling session in which we discussed the topic.
She isn’t expressing regret or sadness when she states, however seldom, that “time flies.” Rather, she is simply recognizing the fact of ‘relativity:’ how, any year or period of time feels shorter — and therefore passed by more quickly — for the older relative to the younger person, or even a younger version of one’s self. That’s true whether you’re 15 or 85. In either case, the most recent period of time is going to ‘feel’ like significantly less compared to the same duration of time at an earlier period in your life. To be sure, our brains do age as we grow older, and we think, decide, and act more slowly. And as our bodies age and we become more and more ingrained in our internal thought-patterns and external habits/rituals, we spend more time in later years in patterns of ‘maintenance’, more than simply toothbrushing. Both those points are true. Yet they don’t need to make us sad or disappointed because of the ‘regret’ aspect of the “Time flies!” remark. My wife, like most when they say the phrase, is simply remarking that her month or year seems to have passed more quickly than a month or year in an early part of her life. Re-consider the one-page-per-year-in-a-book-of-life analogy, and that makes perfect sense.
So I understand that “I empathize with you” aspect when she hears or uses the phrase. Now, I hope, she understand my disappointment — especially in my elders — when I hear others use the phrase!