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The Subjectivity of Time

Time has passed differently for me since I arrived in Kansas.

That’s not a statement about Kansas, but rather about how the way we live warps how we perceive the passing of time. For seven years, I’ve organized my memories according to locations, and in some cases, my projects. This event happened while I was writing that book, I met this person when I was living in that city.

This is something we all do: we bracket our experiences based on the structures underlying our lives in those moments. Sometimes it’s school, sometimes it’s a particular relationship. We attach our experiences to more foundational experiences because it helps us open up the right mental folder and rifle through its contents when we hope to revisit it. “When did I meet this person?” I might ask myself. “Oh yes, I was living in Prague.” I now have context for the relationship, and as such am more capable of aligning the face of the person in front of me with the buildings I saw daily, the food I enjoyed, the other people I knew, and so on.

What’s been interesting about living in Kansas is that, because I decided to hunker down here for longer than I usually stay in a given location, I’ve also been more capable of establishing rituals and routines. I’ve developed habits. I’ve allowed myself to install more of a framework than I usually have in my day-to-day, which in turn has allowed me to see things in a new way. It’s warped my perception of time.

I woke up this morning and couldn’t believe it was Friday. Where did the week go? What did I do with all that time?

I spent the same number of hours as I would usually spend, moving from Monday to Friday. But my experience of those hours was different.

When in-transit, when everything around you is new, your brain is turned on and clocked-up at all times. It’s exhausting, but it causes you to soak up everything around you: your brain doesn’t know what’s an opportunity and what’s a threat, because the environment is new. As such, you take in a lot more data about every moment of every day; which is amazing, if you can become accustomed to the discomfort and overwhelm.

When stationary, however, there are generally far fewer variables to keep track of all day long. I’m enjoying the novelty of having morning and nightly routines, and can see the benefits of having them. But I also notice that a lot more of my time seems to disappear. I can look back and see what I accomplished in that time, and recall individual moments of mental check-in, but the spaces in between those snapshots are usually not sticky enough to have made an impression. I lived through that time, but have no defined, lasting record of it.

This could be seen as a feature, not a bug. Especially when you’re working on a tedious or difficult project or ambition, having time fly by without any memory of the drudgery and discomfort might be construed as your brain doing you a solid. Why would you want to remember all those dull moments of sitting, thinking, accomplishing little, or accomplishing a lot of boring things that will eventually, hopefully add up to something less boring?

For me, though, it’s shocking. Seven years of experience on the road has trained me to expect to remember everything, and to feel that each day is an endless opportunity to explore, internally and externally. Those moments in between, the connective tissue between visible mind-muscles, are valuable to me. Waking up and realizing that a whole week has gone by with relatively few memorable moments to show for it is incredibly disconcerting.

Time is relative. Brilliant scientists are still debating whether it’s even a thing. But we do know that our measurement of it is subjective. The metrics we use are consistent, but they are not, themselves, relevant beyond the fact that we’ve agreed that these are the units we’ll use. There’s nothing meaningful about a second, or a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, except that they refer to the rough movement of our planet in relation to our star. These are useful units of time only because we all agreed to abide by them a long time ago.

But off-planet, these units would be meaningless. If we colonize Mars, we’ll need to artificially provide night and day, forever, or evolve and adjust to a new measurement of time more connected to the local conditions. In science fiction they often bypass this issue by inventing things like the Basic Solar Year, which humans in space still adhere to, even when living around far-off stars or on ships far from any planets. This is useful in explaining how much time has elapsed to Earth-bound people reading about it, but wouldn’t make much sense for those spacefaring humans whose new realities, whose new priorities, were no longer served by that particular method of measurement.

There are good, practical reasons to maintain a grasp on how everyone else is measuring time. But especially in terms of our own memories and how we recall them, it seems prudent to stay flexible, and to allow ourselves to experiment and play.

It’s worth noting that novelty and learning seems to break us free from mind-blanking time-loops. Take a new route to work, and you’ll be more likely to remember your commute. Try preparing a new recipe for dinner, and you’ll be more likely to remember your evening. Have a challenging discussion about uncomfortable topics with a friend or willing stranger, and you’ll be more likely to remember that conversation, and the time you spend ruminating about it days later.

Think about what units you currently use to mark time, and how relevant those units are to what you value, and what you hope to measure.

Ideally, we tether our memories to things that are integral to our happiness, rather than things that simply happen regularly, predictably, and without adding much flavor to our day. It’s not easy to realign this foundation once it’s been poured, but if you’re able to do so, you stand a decent chance of reclaiming and annotating moments of your life that might otherwise be lost to the passing of time.

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Aware

It’s hard to know what to think sometimes.

Perhaps the news seems unreliable, and you’re not sure what sources to trust. Perhaps your own ideologies are beginning to fray at the edges, and you’re not certain which of your own heuristics to follow anymore. Maybe you’ve been exposed to new ideas, new data, new people who invalidate your biases, new foods that indicate you may, in fact, not hate cumin as much as you thought you did.

In such moments, I find that focusing on being aware, rather than being right, can help. Seeking out knowledge instead of affirmation. Being open to information of all kinds, rather than seeking out data-points to confirm a stance already taken. Not having an opinion about something other than, “I’m not sure, but doing my best to learn and understand.”

You can, of course, be aware and act in alignment with your beliefs at the same time. But when your beliefs and the narratives that inform your beliefs are themselves evolving, rerouting your energies toward new information, toward accurate self-perception, toward connecting the dots into a more well-rounded context allows you to keep growing without limiting your growth to any particular direction. It increases the scope and span of your view, without requiring you to first define exactly what it is you’re looking at.

We needn’t have an opinion about the Peloponnesian War to learn about it. We needn’t decide how we feel about a particular author before reading a book they’ve written. We needn’t bend the information that we encounter through a lens we’ve spend years grinding into the proper shape. A shape, by the way, that is determined by how we subjectively see the world, and through which we have decided to interpret all new information in the future (despite not knowing what that information might be, and who we might be when we encounter it).

We are, in fact, better off—in a better position to achieve a purer intake of information—when we’re acquiring it moments of increased malleability. It’s not easy to wriggle free of our preconceptions every time we encounter new data about the world. As such, it’s when we’re at pivot points, when we’re feeling most confused and listless, that’s it’s best to soak up more of the world, to meet new people, to read and listen and watch and interact broadly.

There’s a reason we’re predisposed to go out and travel or seek out new groups of friends when we’re at our most disoriented or discontented. We want to fill in the gaps, certainly, but we also want to create new ones. We want to figure out what other challenges are out there, and what other filters we might apply to those we encounter moving forward. We want to know how best to interpret all this raw data we’re taking in, how to understand it, and hopefully, how to most ideally shape who we are, inwardly and outwardly, so that we’re regularly rearranging our internal furniture and becoming increasingly refined versions of ourselves.

Sometimes these moments are foisted upon us by the world, by other people, by our own biologies. Sometimes we seek them out in moments of clarity, or moments of muddle, or moments of boredom or outrage or rebellion.

However you got there, these are not moments to be wasted. Embrace them for what they are: opportunities.

Take a step outside your norms, take a deep breath, and take in as much of the world beyond the familiar as you dare.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

Blog

Glimpsing the Palette

In many different dimensions of my life right now, I feel that I’m stepping back from a painting I’ve long studied, having spent years trying to understand the composition, the colors, the brush strokes, and the movement, only to accidentally catch a glimpse of something else. Something outside the painting, but integral to its creation.

I notice a brush, and that brush, its bristles derived from sable and slightly worn, helps me understand the application of the paint on the canvas. How that brush is held, its size and the length of the handle, the stains and bruises it bears from use, all speak volumes about both the implement and the person using it.

The brush leads me back to the palette, and suddenly I realize just how much I was missing.

The colors I had been studying? They started out as something else.

Trace those aquamarines backward, and you find a mixture of primary colors, tinted with white, augmented by thickening oil and imbued with a hint of residual colors accidentally left on the brush, or retained as flecks from the color-dappled glass jar in which the brush dries after use. The palette contains colors that haven’t been utilized yet, and still others that are mid-blend, those new colors mixed further with other colors and substances, changing its texture and viscosity, becoming something unrecognizable by the time it arrives on the canvas; a platform I assumed was the key to understanding the whole, but which in actuality was merely the most visible part of the process, and several steps removed from the ingredients that birthed it.

This context also extends in the other direction.

The artist’s palette tells me a great deal about what underpins the final work and how it came to be. But the subject matter of what’s being portrayed in the work itself tells yet another part of the story. What will all of this pigment and effort lead to? What does the artist wish it to represent, and why? What will the final work say, if anything, to those who view it? What significance will it have to each individual viewer through the years, and how will its eventual placement—in an attic, covered by butcher paper, or on a gallery wall, surrounded by other works—alter that significance?

I’ve had several conversations over the last few weeks about meaning and purpose. About why we’re doing what we’re doing. About how we might be better prepared for major shifts, whether those shifts take place within culture, politics, religion, technology, economics, or our interpersonal relationships.

A lot of the people I spoke with are, like me, attempting to spend more time learning about the palette, rather than fixating exclusively on the paint on the canvas.

I don’t have many, if any, answers in this regard, nor do the people to whom I’ve been speaking.

I don’t know that there are absolute answers to have.

I do think that an increased focus on the bigger picture—the subject of the painting, the paint on the canvas, the brush and palette, the painter, the room, and so on—is valuable context, and that by better understanding as much of it, top to bottom, as possible, we stand a far better chance of making positive choices in the moment, rather than making decisions that seem beneficial in the micro, but not the macro. Or vice versa.

We’re living through a moment in history in which we each have the opportunity to see as much of this bigger picture as we choose. We can either stay focused on one small bit and do the best we possibly can within that scale, or we can zoom out, take a look around, and attempt to figure out how our sense of right and wrong, and our sense of how the world works, translates to that much larger, more complex, interconnected picture.

It’s a challenge. It’s confusing. It’s often frustrating and scary and disheartening.

But it’s also something we can understand. It’s a complex mechanism that, even though it may not seem like it sometimes, we can, and hopefully will, continue improving upon.