“Everything one does in life, even love, occurs in an express train racing toward death.” So said Jean Cocteau, French playwright and filmmaker. Similarly, Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic emperor of Rome, notes in his Meditations, “Yesterday sperm, tomorrow… ashes.”
I suppose it all wouldn’t feel so brief if time simply stayed at a regular pace.
Granted, this is a nonsensical statement, at least at first glance. How can time have a speed?
Actually, I don’t really think I need to spell it out. We all (or at least most of us) feel the acceleration of time, even if that feeling makes no sense when we try to translate it into physics. However, it should be rather obvious, just observing the simple math of it, why we feel this way: The longer you live, the smaller any particular unit of time becomes relative to the entirety of your life. In other words, when you’re two years old, one year is half of your entire life; when you’re fifty-two, it’s only 1/52 of your life.
What has always tripped me up is the fact that I don’t like to be rushed… I should also note that most things makes me feel rushed. Even if I have to do something in two months, the gulf of time feels as if it dissolves in a matter of days. At first it may seem as if I have some slack, as if I can shrug it off and say, “Hey, I’ve got two whole months,” but then things become a bit unbearable as the days, almost suddenly, turn into hours or minutes.
There’s that strange feeling in the gut, or the head, or somewhere… I’m not sure where it is, or even what… But it’s there: That your life has been an instant, and its contents seem “thin” or [thus] trivial, somehow.
I always say, in regard to myself, that it’s been something like “an hour between now and when I was sixteen.” It often does feel that way. Thinking of it, I’m reminded of a particular moment when time seemed to accelerate, surreal though that may sound:
I was in a buffet, in Waterbury, a city maybe forty minutes away from where I live. I was roughly thirteen. I think I was there for my birthday. I’m not sure. All I know is that somehow, for some reason, I associate the moment that I stepped up to the exit of the restaurant—glass double doors—with a weird contraction of time.
Since then, it’s felt like very little time has passed. And that was eleven years ago.
This is a paradoxical impression, of course, considering that, while often times the past, present, or future seem short, there are also those moments when life is actually quite long.
Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes there’s this creeping feeling that you’ve been alive a thousand years. I mean, again, logically that’s obviously no the case—but it feels that way. This feeling comes to the forefront of consciousness in the examination of remembrance, and especially in recalling something that you’d thought you had forgotten. One of those “oh, yeah!” moments, you know?
A freshly-renewed memory marks a particular point in time, and breaks up the monotonous blur that is often one’s sense of retrospection, and the general notion of what constitutes one’s life. Hence in that “oh, yeah!” or “aha!” moment, you’re compelled to do a double-take, and think, “Well, if I didn’t remember this [at first], what else am I forgetting?”
There’s another way of looking at the problem of “acceleration”: What if the issue isn’t something like “Well, time flies when you’re having fun” or (more simply) “Life is short!” but rather a lack of action, and ultimately a lack of contentment?
Perhaps the dismal feeling one has when thinking “Life goes by too fast!” really boils down to “I haven’t actually used my time wisely!” Even more so, perhaps it’s “I want more” or “I wanted more” or “If I had done this, that, and the other thing, that would have made me proud of myself, and confident, because I accomplished what I felt would have made me happy in a reasonable amount of time!”
That is to say, what we’re maybe, ultimately just looking at is a lack of fulfillment. I think we all have some notion or another that the materialistic, mundane tasks pitched to us by modern, consumerist society and culture—making a lot of money, or having a lot of sex, or being famous—do not really constitute the “good life”. We are, most of us, well aware of other things, things we usually think of as being nobler, some how. Things like love, and peace, and charity, and so forth. Even if we don’t pursue these as regularly as the former, and “fall into temptation,” as they say, we’re aware of the latter, maybe “higher” values.
Yet imagine a person of moral excellence. Even in the pursuit of upright things, is he not, at the end of the day, still itching for just a bit more time? Isn’t even the “good man,” if not afraid of death, infatuated with the prospect of life? Isn’t even the most miserable, suicidal individual, in the back of his mind, thinking “If I just had a happy life… if I just had the means, the time, to make a happy life… If I could just go back in time and start over…” Doesn’t he just want, if not more time, then a better time?
Experience is all there is for us, and experience is entrenched in time—intimately bound to it. All we know, as conscious beings, is “now,” and “then.” For every choice we make, no matter how pure or perfect or pragmatic, in its wake we leave an infinite number of possibilities—“what-ifs” and “had-beens.” And, what’s more, there is no real time to contemplate: Life is relentless, and the seconds press on with locomotive force.
Sometimes, in the midst of this barrage, it seems as if you’re juggling the entire universe.
Certainly, use your time wisely. But also admit to the fact that, in every moment, there are a thousand million ways to act.
Can you, in that moment, “perfect” yourself?
Can you at least try?
And is trying good enough?
As the emperor Aurelius himself said, “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”