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.