What is time? Can you describe time without invoking the notion of time itself? Physicists have long been fascinated by time, and though Einstein proved that time is an intrinsic part of our universe, inescapable and inseparable from space, its properties and behavior still fascinate. The more we learn, the more baffling, counterintuitive, and mysterious it becomes, and it continues to offer so many still unsolved puzzles. As Brian Greene said,
How could this be? How could we be so wrong about something so familiar?
It is this intimate familiarity that we have with time that can make it so hazardous. By its very definition time is always with us and we instinctively feel its passing. But with everything common in our lives like sunshine, birdsong, and even our own breathing, it fades into the background and too often we go unaware of it. Dan Barker observed that what is considered valuable is that which is uncommon. Jewels, birthdays, and our friends are important to us because there are precious few. However even if we rationally know that our time on this planet is also finite, because time is so familiar, we too often let it slip away without appreciating what we are losing.
Nearly ten years ago, we were fortunate enough to be invited to our good friend’s wedding. We met Carl long ago during our time studying abroad in Stuttgart. At the wedding we marveled at the fact that it had been so long since we had last seen each other and yet everything was still so familiar. Last weekend, nearly ten years after the wedding, we enjoyed a lunch together with a stunning view of the old town of Stockholm and that familiarity and connection hadn’t diminished. Carl mentioned how that year we spent in Stuttgart was so life-changing for him and all the people he knew from that time shared the same feeling. Amidst that reminiscing it struck me that although study abroad is much further behind us than Carl’s wedding, I somehow feel that gulf of years between today and the wedding more than the total elapsed time since our days in Stuttgart. Although we had a wonderful lunch and as always engaged in conversation that was so engrossing that we left in such good spirits, I couldn’t help but ask myself how I had let nearly a decade pass since the last time we met up.
Everyone knows the old cliché that time flies when having fun. I rather have a different view. Time is dangerous because we too often do not realize that it is rushing by when we are busy with things unimportant. That year we spent together in Stuttgart was one of the greatest times of my life, and I was very much aware of it. Did it fly by? Yes, but it was this awareness that has kept its memory with me and makes it seem closer than the ten years that passed between Carl’s wedding and our delightful lunch. Of course Elise and I have had so many amazing experiences in those ten years, but it is the intervening mundanities of the everyday that makes time fly when you are simply living life. Time flies when you are not paying attention.
Einstein proved that time and space are relative to each other; that time slows down the faster you move, relative to an observer. Great experiences in life do seem to make time pass faster, but the memories of those experiences seem to last the longest. Call it Bones’ Theory of Relative Nostalgia: the power and vivacity of great memories is directly proportional to the amount of time since the experience.
The truth is, regardless of our relative rate of speed or how good our experiences, our time is not only limited but also of unknown duration. This is what gives its value. As Emily Dickinson said,
That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
This is my long-winded way of saying that we should get together again, Carl.