The small problem of time, and how to make your life longer

astrology-astronomy-atmosphere-1151262.jpgI could count the times I hear this sentence every day: “I have no time for this”. It could be either me or anyone else pronouncing it, still I hear it very often, maybe too much. Time is a big issue. In philosophical terms, it could be considered within the boundaries of a lifespan, or it could be seen in a broader perspective as the whole time since the universe existed.

One of the best theories on time I have read of recently is the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking’s. In his last speech before he passed away on March 2018, Hawking wondered whether he became more famous for his wheelchair and disability, or for his discoveries. Despite of his illness, diagnosed when he was in his last year of university, he kept on studying, researching and teaching and, admittedly, he “was not afraid of death, but was in no hurry to die”.

What he invited us all to do is to treasure the time we are given. He was very aware of the preciousness of time, and how crucial it is to make the most of it. Seizing the moment, acting now.

In his words:

One of the great revelations of the Space Age has been the perspective it has given humanity on ourselves. When we see the earth from space, we see ourselves as a whole. We see the unity and not the divisions. It is such a simple image with a compelling message. One planet. One human race. We are here together and we need to live together with tolerance and respect. We must become Global Citizens. Our only boundaries are the way we see ourselves. The only borders, the way we see each other.

Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit.

Be brave, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.

This is utterly true for students, who are in the age of discovery. Interestingly enough, time and novelty are embedded together. The Swiss-born British philosopher Alain De Botton discusses the matter and our relative perception of it. Roughly speaking, he gives an answer to the big question: why does childhood seem eternal but, once we become adults, we feel like a thousand years would not be enough to do everything we have to do?

In his view, time moves more or less slowly according to the vagaries of the human mind: it may fly or it may drag. It may evaporate into airy nothing or achieve enduring density. If the goal is to have a longer life, whatever the dieticians may urge, it seems like the priority should not be to add raw increments of time but to ensure that whatever years remain feel appropriately substantial. The aim should be to densify time rather than to try to extract one or two more years from the fickle grip of Death. Why then does time have such different speeds, moving at certain points bewilderingly fast, at others with intricate moderation? The clue is to be found childhood. The first ten years almost invariably feel longer than any other decade we have on earth. The teens are a little faster but still crawl. Yet by our 40s, time will have started to trot; and by our 60s, it will be unfolding at a bewildering gallop.

The difference in pace is not mysterious: it has to do with novelty. The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel. And, conversely, the more one day is exactly like another, the faster it will pass by in an evanescent blur. Childhood ends up feeling so long because it is the cauldron of novelty.

One solution often suggested at this point is that we should put all our efforts into discovering fresh sources of novelty. We can’t just continue to live our small predictable and therefore ‘swift’ lives in a single narrow domain; we need to become explorers and adventurers.

It is sensible enough to try to live longer lives. But we are working with a false notion of what long really means. We might live to be a thousand years old and still complain that it had all rushed by too fast. We should be aiming to lead lives that feel long because we have managed to imbue them with the right sort of openhearted appreciation and unsnobbish receptivity, the kind that five-year-olds know naturally how to bring to bear.

We need to pause and look at one another’s faces, study the evening sky, wonder at the eddies and colours of the river and dare to ask the kind of questions that open our souls.

We don’t need to add years; we need to densify the time we have left by ensuring that every day is lived consciously – and we can do this via a manoeuvre as simple as it is momentous: by starting to notice all that we have as yet only seen.

If Stephen Hawking’s brilliant example of what this actually is didn’t inspire you in making the most of your days, then consider following De Botton’s advice: fill your life with discovery and novelty. Only then will your life be really longer.

There is only one way to forget about time: using it. (Charles Baudelaire)

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