It’s About Time!

So, another year has passed.

There is nothing particularly special about that but I am heartily sick of people saying to me, “Where did the year go! It seemed to go so quickly.”

In fact it went where every other year we have experienced went. (It is as though they expected to turn a rock over somewhere only to uncover 1978, or to restore an overturned bucket only to find 2003!)

And yes, quantitatively speaking, it was the same length as the rest of them. Notwithstanding Einstein’s theory which enables the passage of time to slow with increasing speed, every year, every day, every hour and every second we have experienced has been, except for infinitesimal variations, of the same duration as they have always been in the past. Yet, incredibly an hour in the dentist’s chair seems substantially different from an hour playing billiards!

But our definitions of time (and consequently of distance) are very precise and don’t lend themselves to allowing variations. Since 1967 a second has been defined as exactly 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the resonant frequency of a caesium atom. Since 1983, a metre is defined as the distance travelled by light in a vacuum during 1/299,792,458th of a second. Can it be that sitting in the dentist chair can slow down the resonant frequency of Caesium?

Better nutrition and medical advancements have resulted in extended lifespans. It is a strange phenomenon, isn’t it, that in an era of increasing lifespans, so many people are obsessed with the notion of running out of time. It seems to me that we are just hopeless at prioritising. We all seem to find time to front up for our doctor’s appointment or to get our tax return in, but we can’t seem to find the time to go fishing or sit and read a story to our children or grandchildren. We seem to be obsessed with ensuring that we don’t miss an incoming e-mail on our smart phone, but can’t bear to put aside an hour to listen to some uplifting music.

In the West the average lifespan is now quickly approaching 30,000 days. Those of us, like me, who are illogical, disorganised and emotional, are trying to co-exist with man-made devices with excellent memories and that are precise, logical, highly organised, reliable and purport to operate in “real” time, whatever that is!. It is an interesting philosophical question – should I yield to their pervasive influence? Well my answer of course is an emphatic NO! The qualitative dimensions of my life are those that yield me greatest happiness. And according to conventional usage I must spend a lot of my life in “unreal” time. I would willingly trade off some of the hours of my lifespan for more enlightening and engaging experiences!

The illogical confrontation of humans with time is well-exemplified by the notion of “taking time out”. Where do you take it out from? No matter how you shuffle the cards there is just the same amount of time. I suppose people generally mean from that expression putting aside time (as if you could) to do things other than those that we are programmed to do as part of the rat race.

Talking to others, especially children, gives the game away. When you ask the question, “What are you doing?” the frequent response is, “Nothing!”

It is absolutely impossible to do nothing. Even if you take away the autonomic functions that maintain the body, the mind is always active. What would Descartes have made of this response? Cogito Ergo Sum he proclaimed. “I think, therefore I am!” And many in our society promote the notion that unless we are frenetically engaging with our world, whether it be physically working or interacting with our electronic devices then we are doing “nothing”.

But those who have come to some sense of serenity know that thinking and perhaps meditating (which under the conventional judgment would constitute doing “nothing”) are the foundations of enduring well-being.

It is interesting to conjecture that when Einstein was conducting his “thought experiments” which led to his revolutionising physics, under the above definition he would have been accused of doing nothing!

Michael Leunig perhaps captured it best in his whimsical The Curly Pyjama Letters.

“What is worth doing and what is worth having?” asks Vasco of his friend Mr. Curly.

“It is worth doing nothing and it is worth having a rest”, was the sagacious reply.

Interestingly, in acknowledgement of perceived time paucity, German philosopher Peter Heintel founded a society called Tempus in 1990 whose aim is to extend or slow down time! Good luck Peter! I hope you know how to influence those caesium atom vibrations!