The famous words of the incredibly depressing (yet very pretty) 1980’s hit song “Time” by the Alan Parson’s Project flows melodically over the easy listening channels, while you busily go about your life, doing your same routine day after day, year after year. All the while, time goes faster, your kids become tweenagers, and you attend funerals for grandparents and great uncles.
Your babysitter grows up, graduates college, and gets married!
All too soon, your kids are off to college.
Your once good looks begin to fade and you are left with your personality (if you have one). You put on a little weight.
More time goes by, and then (gasp!) your parents begin to pass away. Your beloved pets pass away, too.
Before you know it, you are approaching retirement, slowing down, and becoming bald, wrinkled and gray.
You are devastated when your beloved spouse passes away. You attend many funerals for close friends. All of you who remain in your social circle exchange knowing looks, secretly wondering who will be next.
And to make it even more depressing, you lose physical and mental abilities you once took for granted as you begin the long, slow, slide towards death.
Every night you lay awake in bed and think about what should have been. You struggle with deep regret. Maybe you do something about it. Maybe you don’t.
More time goes by. It passes very slowly as you stare out your tiny apartment window at the Senior Living Facility. A visitor is a ray of sunshine in your otherwise lonely days.
Seasons pass. One day, you’re not feeling that well. A diagnosis comes. Time slows down. You begin to sleep. A lot. Your body begins to shut down.
As you lay on your deathbed, your entire life passes before your eyes.
Your final thought registers like a blip on a radar screen:
“It went by so quickly!!”
And just like that – everything, everything goes dark as you close your eyes one last time and exhale your final breath.
Time…flowing like a river…to the sea…where it’s gone forever.
Ah! If that’s not a depressing way to start a blog post about our journey through time, I’m not sure what is. I promise you some good news on this topic, however, so hang with me.
I have been feeling very melancholy lately for one huge reason: we are about to uproot our whole entire lives and move half-way across the country. My husband Erik received an amazing new job in the Chicago suburbs and we will be moving there this summer.
With the move looming before me, I have become very introspective and have been pondering the passage of time, and why it seems to have gone much slower when I was a young girl and how it seems so incredibly fast now. I feel like Erik and I just moved into our current home and neighborhood which we absolutely love – even though it’s been almost five years ago. And now we are moving again!
This blog post is the result of much internal wrestling and melancholy moments as well as researching the concept of the passage of time (and how to manage it well).
In this post, I hope to answer the following three questions:
- Why does time seem to fly?
- How can we make it slow down a little bit?
- And finally, how should we approach the concept of the passage of time in a way that we can find rewarding, fulfilling, and peaceful (with little end of life regret)?
So without further delay, here is my best guess as to all things related to the passage of time and how we can approach it with peace.
Why Does Time Seem to Fly?
There are a few reasons, but I will focus on two:
- First, our brain encodes new experiences only (not boring, routine ones), and over-represents new experiences, making them seem longer.
- Secondly, our brains are built for efficiency, so once your brain figures out how to do something, and neuro – pathways are established, the brain runs more quickly and efficiently, making time seem to speed up (and most of what we do every day your brain has pretty much figured out).
Here is a bit more detail on the first reason: (skip to the bold if you don’t like research mumbo-jumbo)
Our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period. In other words, the more new memories we build on a weekend getaway, the longer that trip will seem in hindsight. This phenomenon, which Hammond has dubbed the holiday paradox, seems to present one of the best clues as to why, in retrospect, time seems to pass more quickly the older we get. From childhood to early adulthood, we have many fresh experiences and learn countless new skills. As adults, though, our lives become more routine, and we experience fewer unfamiliar moments. As a result, our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer. (Source: here.)
The second reason time seems to be flying (as touched on above) is because your brain is built for efficiency, and once your brain figures out how to do something, time seems to go faster. Two articles on this topic are found here and here. I will go into this point a bit more in a moment (See Three, do new and hard things.)
The bottom line on why time seems to fly has something to do with the way our brains processes information. If something is novel, time seems to slow down. If something is routine, time seems to speed up.
The only problem is that most of us have relatively routine lives, which leads my to my second point…
What can we do to make time go slower?
I have three ideas that can
make time go slower take the edge off of how rapidly time is flying.
First, pay attention.
From another article: “Eagleman’s research supports the idea that taking time to be mindful and focusing fully on the present moment — in other words, actively noticing new things — can actually slow down our brain’s perception of time.” (Source: here.)
The way I approach “living in the present moment,” (which is much harder than it sounds), is:
- I take very small steps throughout my day to really focus on the details around me, including people, and try to find something pleasant about that one moment in time.
- I take walks and look (and listen) for birds. There are SO many out there and each of their songs are distinct. I focus on the beauty of nature all around me such as blooming flowers, mature trees, sunsets, mountains, and beaches.
- I try to notice the color of people’s eyes (the eyes are the window of the soul). For example my son Logan has beautiful bright blue eyes with a really cool yellow ring around his pupils. I often will just stare and stare into them and just soak up routine moments with him (and my other kiddos).
Second, spend more time with people that are important than you.
Consider the quote from recently-passed First Lady Barbara Bush: “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.”
I am extremely proactive about spending time with my immediate and extended family. Here are a few tips that I have done over the years:
- I’ve pushed my kids on the on the baby swing for several minutes longer than I planned to, all the while relishing their giggles and the joy on their faces!
- Giving each of my kids extra long and meaningful tuck-ins every night before bed. I must confess that this has adjusted since two of my kids are now young teenagers, but in their cases I often just sit in their room and hang with them, talking about their day. Would I prefer to be plopped in front of the TV, just vegetating? Probably. But I try to steal several minutes more, just savoring the time with them.
- I try to get back to my hometown, (Syracuse, NY) about twice a year, and sometimes more if there are events (like graduations, weddings, and funerals). I try to be as intentional as I can be with my extended family, even planning multiple visits on the same day in an effort to fit everyone in.
Third, do new and hard things.
For me, the greatest example of this is our upcoming move to Chicago. Strangely, I look forward to not knowing my way around town, and discovering new things. This is hard work for my brain and will break up my routine, slowing down my perception of time.
According to one article: “all you need to do is regularly inject a little novelty into it (your day to day routine). Think about the last time you went on a great, action-packed vacation. Dimes to donuts, at the end of the trip, you said something like, “We were only here a week, but I feel like we’ve been gone forever.” All that new adventure slowed down your perception of time. Even as we get older, we can still seek out new horizons and new “firsts.”
And in a similar vein: “this means we can also slow time down later in life. We can alter our perceptions by keeping our brain active, continually learning skills and ideas, and exploring new places.” (source: here.)
Here are a few ideas for doing new and hard things:
- Start a new hobby. I started blogging two years ago and time did seem to go a tad bit slower in the beginning when I was trying to figure things out (I am still trying to figure things out…)
- Do something you are afraid of (within reason). For example, do you fear public speaking? Take a Toast-Masters class.
- Take a class at a Community college in a subject that interests you. Or, if that is too much, read a book that is hard for your brain. I recently read a book about the history of Europe and predictions for that region in the years to come. I had to read it very slowly and re-read several sections because it was above my mental pay-grade. (The book was Flashpoints by George Friedman. Another hard book I read was Durable Peace by Benjamin Netanyahu.)
For more on ideas on how to slow down time: good article.
Now, I want to transition this post on ways you can approach the passage of time that will could bring you peace and fulfillment.
First, look backward before you look forward (to minimize regret)
Think of the movie about the man who aged backwards (the Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and approach your life as though you are working backwards with the remaining time you have left, and then prioritize what it is you want to invest in and live for. And what it is that you don’t want to regret later. Figure out what you think you will regret when you are on your deathbed. I know that seems depressing, but at the end of the day, those regrets will be impossible to get out of your brain. You will lie awake at night and think about them.
Did you want to get married and you never did? You will think about that. Did you want to have kids and never did? You will think about that, too. (I am not talking to single women who would love to get married but for some reason are not.) Did you want to reconcile with your father before he died and then never did? Were you true to yourself or did you live up to others’ expectations of you? Did you not spend as much time with your kiddos because you were very focused on your career? You had better believe you will have a lot of time to think about these regrets and many others when you are old and gray, so why not minimize those regrets right now while you still have the chance?
Here are a few things I believe I would regret not having accomplished when I am old and gray:
- Not getting married or having kids
- Not spending enough time my husband and kids because I was too focused on myself or something else (like a time-consuming career)
- Not pushing myself in school or my career and/or not running for political office one day (that is still pending)
- Not being true to (and not working hard towards) my Christian faith
- Not being willing to take risks or do new and hard things
- Not cultivating deep friendships
- A bunch of other small regrets like not reconciling with someone before they passed, or having a funky or estranged relationship with someone important to me
Do you have a Benjamin Button-type list? There’s no time like the present to make one. When I am about to make a big or small decision, I try to ask myself: “If I don’t do this now, will I regret it later?” If I answer “yes,” I try to go and do it, even if it’s a few years later than I said I would.
At the time of this writing, House Speaker Paul Ryan just decided to step down as Speaker of the House at the peak of his career. This is what he told Gail King in a recent interview:
“If I am here for one more term, my kids will only have ever known me as a weekend dad. I just can’t let that happen. I’ve had so many people in their 50s and 60s come up and tell me: “I wish I had spent more time with my kids when they were younger.”
Ryan lost his own dad at 16 so I’m sure that thought is in the back of his mind with this decision (and I’m sure other reasons are as well – like potentially losing the House, etc.). Ryan is looking backward before he looks forward. He is attempting, in his own way, to minimize his regrets later in life.
Second, consider the possibility of eternity
If you believe that there is more to this life than just to live and to die, you’re in good company. But maybe you think that this is all were are here for — to live one life on earth, and then we die and go into the ground.
I would just like to gently challenge you to be open to the thought that there could be an eternity, and put forth some time and effort researching that concept. Just in case.
Consider all the top religions in the world and look into them. Some of them have no eternal life component. Some have incremental eternity; you can achieve eternal life in an incremental fashion. Christianity offers immediate eternal life in Heaven, with God, through faith in Jesus Christ (and through repentance and forgiveness of sins). I believe in this. Many others do as well. Don’t know where to start? Start by reading the book of John in the Bible. It will take your about an hour.
(For a brief overview of what various religions believe about the afterlife, click here.)
If you spend time researching healthy recipes or which essential oils to use when your child has the sniffles, or which 401K plan is better for your retirement, then maybe consider looking into the concept of eternal life (and how to achieve it) before you time is up, just to be on the safe side.
I believe that when my time is up, I am going to heaven. I hope to live until I’m 103, but last year when my childhood best friend Hillary passed away from two forms of deadly cancer at 44, I learned that sometimes your number is called much sooner than you would like it to be.
Third, there is no spoon
In the hit movie series The Matrix, the main character Neo discovers that what he thought was real life is really fake — that all of mankind is being controlled by machines that use the energy of human life to provide energy for themselves (the machines). Basically, the machines rule the world and they control our brains and put us into our very own, specially-formulated reality TV show.
Neo breaks free of the Matrix (the fake life) and discovers that he is the chosen one — the one to set the humans free from the grip of the machines. In one telling scene, he meets with a woman prophet and sees a young boy attempting to move a spoon with his mind. The boy is successful. Neo tries to bend the spoon and is eventually successful. But then the boy says something that resonates with my above point about eternity:
The boy: “Do not try to bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth.”
Neo: “What truth?”
Boy: “There is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, but only yourself.”
The point is that if there is an afterlife, we make a mistake if we spend all our time focusing on what we can see at the expense of the reality we do not.
As I look backward in order to look forward, I am trying to keep in mind that there is no spoon, or rather, there is a spoon, but there’s also a fork and a knife too, and this whole other world that I am heading to when I go. And then I (imperfectly) try to live my life here on earth with that other reality in mind.
Instead of bending the spoon, I hope to bend myself.
If you have one minute and 11 seconds, watch this.
A couple of other quick thoughts on this last point. I have read a few books about end of life experiences. Trudy Harris, a hospice nurse, relayed that many of her patients who had a faith in God died very peacefully, and many described seeing angels in their room right before they passed.
Billy Graham stated the following about his own grandmother: “When my grandmother was dying she sat up in her bed, smiled, and said, ‘I see Jesus, and He has His hand outstretched to me. And there’s Ben and he has both of his eyes and both of his legs!’ (His grandfather had lost one leg and one eye in Gettysburg. Source: here.)
Similarly, years ago I read a book series about American history. According to many accounts, slaveowners would often feel extreme guilt on their deathbeds and call their slaves to their bed-side to say they were very sorry for what they had done/how they had treated them.
One slaveowner’s own account is very chilling:
“Oh the blackness of darkness! The dark imps! I see them all about me – take them away!” (source, From Sea to Shining Sea, Peter Marshall, page 279.)
Seems like this slaveowner had a glimpse of what was waiting for him when he crossed to the other side. Only — what he saw scared the hell out of him.
The bottom line of this entire post is this: time is flying, but there are a few things you can do to slow it down (think doing new and hard things) and there are ways to approach it that can be helpful (think end of life regret and working backwards). And consider eternity, which really helps you to process aging and death with hope and peace.
A few deep quotes about the passage of time and the possibility of something more:
“Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)
“Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days, let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure. Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (Psalm 39)
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” –Mother Theresa
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.” – Carl Sagan
And then the one day you find — ten years have got behind you. No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. And you run and you run to catch up with the sun
but it’s sinking. Racing around to come up behind you again. The sun is the same
in a relative way but you’re older. Shorter of breath, and one day closer to death. Every year is getting shorter; never seem to find the time. Plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled lines. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. The time is gone. The song is over. Thought I’d something more to say. – Pink Floyd (Time)
“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you will make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things that you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” – Benjamin Button
And finally, I believe these last two quotes sum up this post:
“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” – Michael Altshuler
“Endings are not always bad. Most times they’re just beginnings in disguise.” -Kim Harrison