As the great Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca mused, “So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.” Of course, our perception of the shortness of life can’t be discussed without understanding our perception of time. After reading his works, I wanted to know: where does my time go, and why does it feel like I can never grasp and truly comprehend it?
Especially once I graduated college, I felt like the days melted together. I’d wake up, excited to face the challenges of the day, and after the blink of an eye, back in the same bed, alarm set for the next day. June started. Then it was February. A few months ago, summer plans dominated conversation. Now it’s over and Halloween stores cover every street corner. Why is my perception of time speeding up? Seneca has to be wrong – life does feel short! As a byproduct of this feeling, it’s difficult to distinguish one day from another. How is my day today different than my day 2 weeks ago?
An answer to this question eventually showed itself. Reminiscing with a close college friend the other day, his freshman year roommate popped into the conversation. Ah, freshman year. That time of your life when you’re finally an adult and on fending for yourself. Clearly though – that specific time in your life.
As a student, for 18 years, you chunk your life experiences together by grade. “Oh yeah, my 3rd grade teacher was amazing.” “I totally had a crush on that girl in 8th grade.” “I made the football team my sophomore year of high school.” This chunking of time and experiences allowed me to remember exactly when events happened, and I could recall specific events, thoughts, or desires by who my roommate at the time was, or what classes I was taking, or if I was even old enough to legally drive. My brain had the ability to easily find desired memories by searching by grade. Once you graduate college, easily defined, consistent periods of time disappear. There is no ‘sophomore year’ of life. Remembering specific events become more difficult because you don’t have an easy category to search by.
This lack of a chunking framework for memories or events makes time feel as if it’s flowing by faster as you get older and further away from those grade years. What are the ramifications or consequences of this? How can we manipulate our perception of time so we both remember desired or important events, and maximize our time we do have so it doesn’t feel as if it’s sand slipping through our fingers?
One major tool you can use is to simply be aware of this phenomenon. Recognize how fast your weeks go by; look at how quickly the river of time flows by when you’re with a loved one; take a moment to be aware of the actual moment, the visuals around you, your immediate feelings and senses. Take stock of what’s happening now. We can’t live grade to grade anymore, or recall fond memories by what grade we were in, but we can live consciously in the present and be aware of how we spend our most important currency: time.