Perception of time

Humans are permanently linked to the concept of time. Our lives, driven by the ticking of a clock. Our actions determined by the movement of the second hand. Our patterns and habits guided by the rising and setting of the sun. Our biorhythms influenced by the waxing and waning of the moon.

Our son yesterday had his wisdom teeth taken out. All five of them. Yes, he got an extra dose of wisdom, and we got an extra bill from the surgeon. Taking him to the hospital and caring for him afterwards made me realise how inextricably linked we are to time; and how the passing of time is dependant on your perception of time and your relationship with it.

The countdown began from the moment we booked him in for the operation. The days passed with new meaning, each day closer to the day he was having his procedure. On the actual day, we were completely at the mercy of time. He had to fast, no food or even a sip of water, from midnight. We had to arrive at the hospital at 10.30am for his admission. We complied with the fasting and turned up on time. And then the wait began. A patient before him became a complicated case and the surgery took extra time, a lot of extra time, which for us meant a three hour wait in the hospital’s waiting room, no food or drink allowed.

The time passed, but not without some level of discomfort. And the more we watched the time, the slower it passed. Luckily for me, I had a book with me to read, one I have been reading over the last couple of days and really enjoying. Therefore, the time passed quite smoothly and often I was shocked when I lifted my eyes from the pages to check the clock, shocked to see how much time had passed, how long we had been sitting and waiting. My son didn’t have a book, there were no magazines, he didn’t have his headphones with him, and he was anxious. So began his wrestle with time, as he wished it to pass and for it to be his turn. For his operation to be over and done with.

Eventually his turn arrived, and they took him, looking very special in his gown, booties and hat, off to surgery. And then for me, the waiting ramped up. Waiting for their call. To say it was over. That he was OK. Which he was.

Coming home our routine was dictated again by time. Four hourly medication. Applying ice to his cheeks in twenty minute intervals for twenty minutes. Our lives for the past 24 hours have been in blocks of twenty minutes. Dictated by the beeping of the timer. Ice on. Beep. Beep. Ice off. Beep. Beep. Time to ice. Beep. Beep. Ice on. Beep. Beep. Ice off.

Measuring time

The timer got me thinking of the instruments designed to measure time. I began thinking about clocks and what came before them. Before the invention of any mechanism to count time, our ancestors would have seen the passing of time and the day through the lengthening of shadows and the movement of the sun. It makes sense then, that one of the first time-tracking devices we know of, is the sundial. An ancient Egyptian sundial, dated from what is thought to be as early as 1500 BC shows that they divided the space between sunrise and sunset into 12 parts. A numerical division which stayed and is the basis of the analog clock. The Greeks improved on the sundial and the Romans adapted it to incorporate the water clock, in order to be able to record time passing even when the sun was not shining. The water clock measured the passing of time through the flow of water. Similar to a sand filled hour glass, which followed. Time recording devices became more sophisticated after Galileo, in the 17th Century, noticed the regular motion of a swinging lamp in a cathedral, where he was studying. From there, John Harrison developed the marine chronometer because a swinging pendulum is no good on a vessel floating on a body of water for obvious reasons. From there the atomic clock of the 1950s and the invention of lasers in the 1960s, changed our ability to measure time to the degree of accuracy we know today.

The definition of time is based on the physical concept of time. The bit we can measure. That which has been tracked by sundials, water clocks and the swinging of pendulums. The time Plato measured as he watched the stars move. The time Issac Newton defines as mathematically true. The concept of subjective time, the psychological concept of time, the philosophy of time, however, is not defined in the dictionary. Yet it is equally as important. 

Philosophy of time

In Buddhist philosophy, time exists only if we are conscious of it. The three hours in the waiting room affirmed this for me. I lost time, when I was consumed in my book, unaware of time, it disappeared. My son, on the other hand, was very conscious of time, watching the clock, feeling the time drag. For him, time existed almost to the degree of torment.

The philosophical notion of time has been a human obsession before we started measuring it, or perhaps because we started measuring it. Measuring time is our attempt to put a frame of reference and a linear sequence around the physical movement of time. But we have failed to be able to measure the psychological concept of time. This is something which cannot be boxed neatly into a nice neat ordering of numbers.

Redefining our relationship with time

Writer and thought leader, Deepak Chopra believes everyone has a gift, and when ‘you are expressing yourself in that unique way and giving out your gifts, you lose track of time’. This is reflective of the idiom ‘time flies when you are having fun’. And although it is blissful not to notice the passing of time, time passing is somewhat anxiety-inducing for people in a society obsessed with youth, a society that has turned its back on elders and no longer respects them as the wise teachers of life (something I feel strongly we should reclaim).

Deepak Chopra speaks about our need to redefine our perception of time and ageing. He believes you can, through a variety of ways, alter your biological age. One way, being to change your relationship with time.

‘If you are always in a hurry, your biological clock speeds up. People who are always saying “I am running out of time”, their blood pressure goes up, their heart rate speeds up, their platelets get jittery, and then they suddenly drop dead of a heart attack. They have literally run out of time. So change your perception of time and your perception of ageing. Say to yourself every day, “in every way I am increasing my mental and physical capacity,” because you can. You can increase your mental capacity by being aware, and learning and being curious. There is a saying “people don’t grow old, when they stop growing they become old.” Keep growing all the time.’ Deepak Chopra

So stay curious people, and keep growing. Respect and learn from your elders. Age is a wonderful thing. Not something to run from. Enjoy what your doing and let time pass without consideration, without trying to hold onto it. Without worrying about it slipping through your fingers. But don’t waste your time. Remember we all have a gift, each and every one of us, a purpose for being here. As Shakespeare eloquently put it:

“I wasted time, and now doth time has wasted me.” Shakespeare

Lost in my writing, time has passed without me noticing. But I gotta go, because I can hear the beeping of the timer. Beep. Beep. Twenty minutes has passed. Beep Beep. Its time to take the ice pack off. 

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