Time on our Hands
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Time on our Hands


But what's the point?

What is Time?

I thought, as this is a story about time, we should start with what is Time exactly. I know, sounds ridiculous. But my email and web browsers (plural? wtf!) are chock full of essays and saved tabs questioning how we spend time on just about everything: work, living longer, raising a family, retiring, travel, eating, exercising—whew!— on and on. With our lives carved up into so many pieces, I think an official definition of time is warranted, even if it risks…well, wasting a bit of it.

Science defines time as the progression of events from the past to the present into the future. In our case, unfortunately, it moves in only one direction, albeit at speeds relative to the frame of reference of the observer because the human brain, while very well equipped to track time, consists of around 100 billion tiny neurons (for sense of scale—which apparently is a very scientificky thing to provide—there are approximately 200-400 billion stars in the Milk Way) all of which can be affected by the activities we’re engaged in, our age, and even by how much sleep we get.

Because time perception is closely linked to memory, any one of these, or one of many other countless influencers, has the potential to alter our sense of time. For instance, a life with few new memories (i.e. the experience of most older adults) will seem to zip by like a comet, while a someone making new memories (a child) will feel as if it’s creeping by like a snail.

Like a River

To help myself better understand this phenomenon of changing mental perception, I came across this fascinating article written by a Duke University mechanical engineering professor, Adrian Bejan, a fellow believer in that pretty much everything can be explained by physics. Art, trees, people, organizations, even financial structures, all follow the natural design principle of flow, called constructal law, which states that everyone and everything hoping to persist in nature must work with and even allow itself to be shaped by external pressures.

He writes:

[L]ife is movement that evolves freely, in both animate and inanimate spheres. Alive are all the freely changing flow configurations and rhythms that facilitate flow and offer greater access to movement. When movement stops, life ends. When movement does not have the freedom to change and find greater access, life ends.

We can see constructal law at work all around us in our daily lives, in the shape of lightning strikes, traffic patterns, climate change, and even the distribution of wealth. A river is a great example. As it meanders through a valley, the natural system of flow is always influencing it, trying to maximize one condition, its length. It’s never able to quite reach the ideal, however, because of the land, the wind, possibly even animal life, and so the length oscillates above and below whatever this ideal length may be. To endure, the river must exist within parameters set by all of these various externalities.

The Mind’s Eye

In terms of time, or rather our perception of time, we experience slight changes in mental stimuli related to what we see. Water encounters land and over time land erodes thus changing the course of the river. The same thing occurs in our minds as we go about our daily lives. With whom we spend time, where we go, what we do there. All are unrelated to the passing of hours or days or years but influence our perception of time nonetheless. Indeed, it’s these changes in stimuli that give us the sense of time’s passage in the first place.

“The ‘clock time’ that unites all the live flow systems,” Bejan writes, “animate and inanimate, is measurable. The day-night period lasts 24 hours on all watches, wall clocks and bell towers. Yet, physical time is not mind time. The time that you perceive is not the same as the time perceived by another.”

Mind time is influenced instead by the number of images the brain encounters. As we age, the speed and quality of these images decreases because of many reasons—vision, brain complexity, degradation of neuro pathways—all of which, psychologists believe, lead us to enjoy fewer new experiences, which means we create fewer new memories, which leads to a feeling of time speeding by.

If we examine our own lives, we’ll see plenty of places that constructal law is shaping our lives and the choices we make, forcing us to adjust to circumstances and situations, large and small—bosses, friends, changing seasons, economic downturns, to list a few. Because we can’t know all the forces at work, and even if we did, are helpless to control them, all we can do is recognize they are there and try our best to cooperate with them as opposed to struggling against them.

Going with the flow is not a common saying because it’s easy, but because it increases our chances of success and survival.

The Power of Water

What, you might be asking at this point, does any of this have to do with Sicily Well, very little, to be honest, except for this:

When we first arrived in Troina and began attending events around town—parades, festivals, plays, concerts, etc—we quickly learned that little here actually started according to the calendar time, that is the “clock time” set by someone to indicate the start of the event. In reality there seemed to be another time at work, one that set the real schedule. Or indicated a lack of a schedule at all.

At first, this was a huge distraction to us. We’d made plans, adjusted our lives and endured whatever challenges that meant to arrive on time, the least the organizers could do was start the damn thing on time. In America, such a lackadaisical assault on our personal time would never fly. There, entire industries are built on the idea of having it your way any time of the day. Convenience is factored into nearly everything that goes on there. Drug use (pharmaceutical, please). Travel. Eating. Entertainment. America could conceivably schedule all four of these at the same time and still start on time.

How could there be such a difference of attitude here?

We sat there in our seats or stood by ourselves, often stewing, often watching the clock, often wondering where in the hell everyone else was and why those others who’d made the same effort to show up on time weren’t raising hell about the official start time slipping further and further into the past. The “clock time” and this, let’s call it a “communal mind’s eye time”, could differ by minutes or hours, it didn’t seem to matter. People didn’t appear put off by it.

Then, after a couple of different occasions of this, we observed and slowly began to understand. It wasn’t all about the event, that is, the event was not the entire the point. The real, all-inclusive point extended well beyond the scheduled entertainment. The event provided much, much more, in fact, as the time before, the time during, and the time after it allowed people the opportunity to gather, to visit with one another, to share themselves and their stories with friends and in our case, even strangers.

They extended their own experience beyond what someone else had deemed memorable enough, and that, my friends, is the true power of time. To adapt to it. To change it. To accept it. To befriend it and not turn it into an enemy. After all, though the length of a river can be shortened—you just have to cut through the bends, making it flow straight—doing so, even, and especially, for convenience sake, is only temporary as the relentless forces of nature that have worked against it would be back at it immediately.

Best to go with the flow, as the professor suggests, and look at time as a thing in nature with which we must co-exist. Because indeed time is, as Marcus Aurelius once shared, “like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”

All aboard, say Aye.


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