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All the tragedies which we can imagine return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time. — Simone Weil

A Fascination with Time

A Historical, Cultural, Philosophical, and Psychological Perspective

Years ago, when I was still a teenager, my dad threw a curveball at me. “Son,” he said, “What one thing is equal for every person?” I sat in the car staring at the sky, hoping that the answer would magically appear out of the clouds. I can’t remember how I answered the question, but I do remember what he said. My dad would often bring me everywhere he went—business meetings, casual hangouts with friends, sightseeing tours for distant relatives, groceries for the restaurant, visits to my grandfather’s grave. He would meander around the narrow cobblestone-paved alleys of Lisbon with craftsman-like ease. You could tell he knew his way around—operating with a handmade map that showed every shortcut, every secret passageway, and every corner of the city. For a kid, these outings were mini-adventures and precious father-son time. I think my dad enjoyed taking his little apprentice around, despite the child’s mischievous, playful nature. I’m still baffled by how he managed to raise such a troublesome, energetic monkey. The moments I cherished the most were also the most simple; I loved our conversations in the car. One question always led to another. There were no arguments or debates, only ideas bouncing around until we arrived at the destination. My dad was a great mentor guiding me to think through problems with patience. “Think about something that’s the same for every person regardless if they’re young, old, men, women, Portuguese or Chinese,” he nudged. Benjamin Franklin stated that nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes. My dad’s addendum? Time. 

Time is fascinating. Think about it: Time, space, energy, and matter were born out of the Big Bang about 13.5 billion years ago. Earth formed over 4.5 billion years ago. Homo Sapiens, wise humans in Latin, gained consciousness about 70,000 years ago. The agricultural revolution paved the way for civilization about 12,00 years ago. The industrial-scientific revolution gave birth to modern civilization around 500 years ago. And finally, the Internet was invented 40 years ago. 

Time reveals the transitory nature of existence. Everything comes and goes; nothing lasts forever, so make the most out of the little time we have in this world.

 

 

People have a hard time fully grasping this timescale, not surprising given the temporal distance between an average person’s lifespan and deep time—the multi-billion year geological history of Earth. An appreciation for deep time expands people’s time horizon, enabling them to understand not only that historical events are interconnected but also that history acts on multiple levels of abstraction. Steven Johnson, the author of How We Got to Now, interweaves history with big ideas and innovation. He coined the term, “the long zoom of history” to describe how “history happens on the level of atoms, the level of planetary climate change, and all the levels in between,” bringing this perspective to the six innovations—glass, cold, sound, clean, time, light—that shaped the modern world. Johnson’s chapter on time takes the reader from ancient Egyptian calendars, to Greek sundials, to Galileo’s pendulum clock, to 19th-century mechanical pocket watches, to the revolutionary time-keeping properties of quartz crystals, to the hyper-accuracy of atomic clocks. As the measurement of time gained more precision, a chain reaction of new technologies, inventions, and phenomena emerged: maritime navigation and global shipping networks during the Age of Discovery; the concept of hourly wage and coordinated manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution; the mass production of “William Ellery” pocket watches during the American Civil War; the synchronization of railroad clocks using time zones during the Gilded Age; the introduction of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT); the coordination of global air traffic; microprocessor execution in modern computers; and GPS navigation using time stamps. 

The irony of modern civilization is that the more we want to control time and the better we are at measuring time, the more time controls us, and the less time we seem to have. Besides a better understanding of the past, deep time increases our time scale into the future, making us aware of our fleeting existence and the abundant time left for post-Sapien evolution. Far more time lies ahead than has elapsed until now. There is abundant time for further evolution, and with technology, our species will evolve much faster than the typical Darwinian timeline. Genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, and cyborg engineering will be the cheat codes to unlock “God mode.” With this newfound power, what kind of world will we create? What do we actually want? Is it peace, prosperity, happiness, higher consciousness, or immortality? Time helps us understand where we came from but also where we are going. 

Our obsession with time is reflected in our language, particularly in the metaphors we use. Time is a linear arrow that transcends from the past to the future. Time is also a resource, a commodity—no doubt coinciding with our compulsion for time-keeping during the Industrial Revolution. Before clocks were used to measure time, productivity had been described by how long it took to complete a task. Work was unregulated. Deadlines and hourly pay were non-existent. Once time was viewed as a limited resource, new metaphors were introduced into the cultural lexicon. Time could be used, given, spent, served, split, saved, budgeted, valued, thanked for, invested, wasted, lost, borrowed, and lent. Time was money. People were either making money or not making money, either working or playing. According to George Lakoff, in Metaphors We Live By, the time as a resource metaphor “emerged naturally in our [American] culture because of the way we view work, our passion for quantification, and our obsession with purposeful ends.” 

Even though time is a universal standard, psychological time is not. Different cultures have very different relationships with time. For instance, the pace of life in developed countries with a future time orientation—such as Japan, Germany, and the USA—is often more hectic and precise. Punctuality is a virtue and repeated tardiness a sin. But in past-oriented cultures such as India and China, time is more fluid and less critical. Lateness is the norm and tolerated without penalty. Case in Point: My visit to India for an Odia wedding was a confusing cultural lesson on different temporal attitudes. Once I realized I was going to be late to the ceremony, I frantically paced around the hotel room, trying to figure out the logistics and the estimated time of arrival so that I could convey the information to my hosts. I kept repeatedly pestering my Indian friend, who accompanied me on the trip, about the details: When is the car picking us up? What happens if we’re late? Where are your parents? Have they not come back from the temple? What is happening? Why are we waiting? Can’t we just book a taxi ourselves and get there on time? Why isn’t this bothering you? Why do you look so calm? For each of my questions, my friend repeated the same mantra, “Don’t worry, man. Everything will be okay.” In some cultures, time is linear; in other cultures, time is circular; and in some pre-industrial societies such as the Amazonian Pirahã tribe, time is alien. 

Time is a great teacher because it reveals the truth. Time reveals character. At first blush, people put their best foot forward, concealing their flaws and true intentions; however, over time, their true colors will begin unraveling, and they will show you who they really are. Time reveals the strength of relationships. Friendships and family ties that have stood the test of time are the most valuable connections we have. Most relationships are like fireworks, starting out as a bright spark but ultimately fading into obscurity. Time reveals love. Is my attraction towards the other person consummate love or mere infatuation? Time reveals passion. When people try new, pleasurable activities, they experience a “novelty bonus” in the form of dopamine. In the beginning, the activity is enjoyable, but soon we experience diminishing returns. Persisting beyond the initial interest is an indication of passion—long-term intrinsic motivation. Time reveals identity. We are what we repeatedly think and what we repeatedly do. With time and self-reflection, we discover our values, life philosophy, and preferences. Patterns of thought, behavior, and interaction emerge, combining to create our identities. Time reveals intellectual pursuits. Students take various subjects and read many different genres, but in the course of time, they specialize in particular fields. Time reveals work orientation. Is what we do a job, a career, or a calling? After the honeymoon period of our jobs wears off, we have to confront reality: Do we enjoy our job? Would we do it for free? Does it provide us with meaning and fulfillment? When do we feel motivated? What do we want? Time reveals change. Do bursts of inspiration lead to any lasting transformation? Is it all talk, or do we walk to talk? And lastly, time reveals the transitory nature of existence. Everything comes and goes; nothing lasts forever, so make the most out of the little time we have in this world. 

“Time is equal for everyone. Every person is given 24 hours each day,” my dad explained. With the natural skepticism of a 15-year-old, I wrestled with that conclusion, trying to find holes in the argument. But what he said seemed airtight. Yet, for some reason, I had an unpleasant visceral reaction to that statement. Was time really the same for every person? It took me over a decade before I arrived at a palatable answer. 

Apart from the difference between human time and deep time, there’s also a difference between how time passes and how time is perceived—psychological timeThe passage of time can be tracked either by using a clock or by using one’s subjective feeling. Some people lament the quick passage of time, while others resent the slow passage of time. Even though we all have 24 hours in a day, some days feel shorter, and other days feel longer. In cognitive psychology, this phenomenon is called time illusion—the mismatch between temporal reality and temporal perception. Time flies when we experience positive emotions (happy, loved, entertained), when we are in a state of flow and deep engagement, when we get older, when we go about our daily routines, and when we take depressants. Think about how time passes on a productive morning when you’re engaged and motivated, or how your week whisks by when you’re on autopilot. On the other hand, time seems longer when we experience negative emotion (fear, stress, boredom), when we are present in a state of mindfulness, when our days are filled with novelty and variety, and when we take stimulants. Think about how time slows down when you’re carefully observing a piece of art in a museum, or when you’re underwater counting the number of seconds you can hold your breath. Viewed in this light, Father Time, also known as Chronos, is no longer an ominous god carrying a scythe and an hourglass, but a paternal shape-shifting figure who is open to conversation. The trick is figuring out how psychological time works so that we can retain control over our lives. To stop the years from flying by, we have to slow down, live in the moment, and fill our lives with novelty and variety. Echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln, “In the end it’s not the years in your life that count; it’s the life in your years.”

My favorite phrase of all-time is “we’ll see.” Can I trust him or her? We’ll see. Will we be lifelong friends? We’ll see. Will that couple stay happily married? We’ll see. Will human nature ever change? We’ll see. Will we ever eradicate human suffering? We’ll see. Will we ever achieve immortality? We’ll see. Is the company overvalued? We’ll see. Will the business model work? We’ll see. How much time do we have left in this world? Not much. 

Further Reading

  • Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari (2011)
  • How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson (2014)
  • Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff (1980)