I was tossing tennis balls for my Australian Shepard to fetch when I saw an old man standing nearby. He wasn’t sad but was silent in that contemplative way old men often are. I sensed that he needed someone to talk to and thought I’d give him the favor of a conversation.
Instead, it was he who taught me a powerful lesson on aging.
“You have a beautiful dog. How old is he?”
“He just turned 7.”
“Aussies have a lot of energy. You must take him out frequently.”
“Yes, he is high energy. He has taught me a lot about life and my own mortality. He’s around 50 in dog years. He still has energy but watching him grow and mature has given me an insight into my own life cycle.”
“You’re about 30, yes?”
“When you’re 30, the days still seem like days. When you’re 50, the days pass by like years.”
“What do you mean?”
“As you get older, your relationship with time changes. I just turned 70. The decades passed by as quickly as days.”
I went home and started researching our perception of time. He was right. Our perception of time, being relative, changes as we age.
We all intuitively understand this. Remember your first haircut? Were you ever forced to go to church? The minutes passed by with agony.
As it turns out, our perception of time presents a serious philosophical question:
The very expression ‘the perception of time’ invites objection. Insofar as time is something different from events, we do not perceive time as such, but changes or events in time…. For what we perceive, we perceive as present—as going on right now. Can we perceive a relation between two events without also perceiving the events themselves?
Whatever you perceive today will be measured against what you perceived yesterday. The more “yesterdays” you have, the less significant and close each one seems.
The minutes fold into hours into days into years and then into decades. St. Augustine explained:
It cannot be what is past, since that has ceased to be, and what is non-existent cannot presently have any properties, such as being long. But neither can it be what is present, for the present has no duration. (For the reason why the present must be regarded as durationless, see the section on the specious present, below.) In any case, while an event is still going on, its duration cannot be assessed.
Augustine’s answer to this riddle is that what we are measuring, when we measure the duration of an event or interval of time, is in the memory.
During my senior year of high school, I could have talked all day about what happened during the Summer. Each day seemed novel.
A Friday night presented serious FOMO. How could anyone not go out on a Friday night? That’s a whole night…How could you just sit home for four hours?!
I’m turning 37. What happened yesterday? I couldn’t tell you. I don’t remember what happened in 2008 or 2009. The days all blend together.
As Axl Rose put it:
Yesterday, there was so many things I was never told
Now that I’m startin’ to learn I feel I’m growin’ old
‘Cause yesterday’s got nothin’ for me
Old pictures that I’ll always see
Time just fades the pages in my book of memories
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”
The average male life expectancy is about eight decades. That seems like a long time. Today.
As you get older, those years will whirl by. I am obsessed with sunsets, although it’s impossible to escape the unconscious feeling of Memento mori.
(“One day you will have watched your final sunset.”)
Pink Floyd captured this troubling and complicated philosophical concept:
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
Stop wasting time.
No one told you where to run, and you may have missed the starting gun. That time has passed.
But the sun hasn’t set on us yet.
We have today.
What are you going to do with it?