March of Time

When we’re young, time seems to creep at a petty pace, but the passage of time accelerates as it goes by. When I was young, I had the sense that a week was a long time, and summer vacations lasted for ever. Now, days and weeks gallop by, and even months pass quickly. When I first read Andrew Marvell’s plea To His Coy Mistress, I didn’t fully understand his impatience. At this point, even without a mistress, I can hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near. When I was young, I wanted time to pass quickly so that I could grow up. I wanted to do more of what the older kids were doing. I also thought that a week of school lasted way too long.

A long time ago, I read an article about the way time seems to go faster as we age. I no longer have a reference for the article (it was before the Internet of things became the way we store information), but the basic idea was to consider time as a percentage of one’s life. When you are a day old, a day is 100 percent of the time you have been alive—at least since birth. When you are a year old, a day is 1/365th of your life. When you are 10, a day represents about 1/36th of your life. As you age, a day occupies less and less of your life. The same is true for weeks, months, and eventually years.

The “march of time” is relentless. An old saying is Time and tide wait for no man. (The saying is old enough that “man” includes males and females.) We can’t make the rise and fall of tide stop, nor can we speed it up or slow it down. However much we might want to hurry through some experiences or slow others to better savor them. When Faust is making his pact with the Devil, Goethe has Faust say

      When I say to the Moment flying;
      ‘Linger a while—thou art so fair!’
      Then bind me in thy bonds undying,
      And my final ruin I will bear!”

The concept is symbolic: stopping time would be a “deal with the devil.” Time itself probably gave rise to most human religious beliefs, as religion provides a way to “make peace” with the relentless march of time.

For much of history, people tracked time by changes in the seasons. It wasn’t “how many years ago,” but “how many winters ago….” Measuring by the season was replaced by calendars to help ensure more accurate record keeping. A lot of human history had passed before individuals and cultures started tracking births and deaths. Many of our ancestors believed in both a “prelife” and an afterlife, but it took humans a long time to fully develop a mythology surrounding such beliefs. In some cultures, reincarnation is the accepted belief. In other cultures, we get only one chance to live before we are “forever” saved or damned. When humans don’t know, they make stuff up. That’s essentially true about everything, not just the time before birth and after death. When we don’t know, we tend to guess or just make something up.

The hardest words of tongue or pen are not the words, “it might have been.” The hardest words are, “I don’t know.” In most cases, we don’t make an effort to distinguish between “knowing” and “believing.” Science was developed to reduce the need to say, “I don’t know.” Even scientists, however, are hard pressed to say, “I don’t know.” Their guesses may be more educated than most, but they are still inclined to guess when they don’t know. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have so many scientists changing views of what has gone before. Science is, practically by definition, an ongoing exploration. And, of course, in many cases humanity can’t afford to wait until the final answer is discovered to act. We have to do what people have always done: “go with what we know.”

The trick is in knowing more, especially because the more you know, the less you fear, and the less you fear, the better your guesses become. Both Einstein and Freud did a lot of guessing. Guess boldly, with a nod and a wink in the direction of Martin Luther.