How we measure time

19 April 2020
19 Apr 2020
West Lafayette, IN
3 mins

We perceive time in at least three different ways.

First is chronological. We measure time in scientifically regulated intervals, and demarcate events in our lives and on the calendar with counted numbers that label moments according to a clock. This is the most objective marker of time we have.

Second is with respect to other lifetimes. We talk about how people who came before us “live in the past” and how the younger generations are “living in the future.” We improve society “for future generations.” Time, in this sense, is a more subjective interval granted on a generational basis, and shared amongst the inhabitants of each zeitgeist.

Third is as a narrative, with perhaps a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we take a moment of introspection and tell stories about our past, we don’t tell stories with perfect respect to the clock, but instead tell it as if we’re describing a painting. We omit the weeks and months that don’t matter and linger on the seconds that make the days. We may choose to provide an overview before diving into the details. We build ourselves narratives about whole chunks of time that we’ve lived through as single, unbroken units of experience, even though they’re in fact collections of smaller moments. This is the most subjective of the ways we remember time: as a collection of stories, an anthology of personal narratives bound only loosely by the monotonic hands of the clock.

Narratives. Taken in Iceland, March 2020

When we tell our life stories to others, we subconsciously pick which time scale guides our narrative. For some, life is a steady, monotonically ticking clock that counts forward in trusted units of measure. Others fill page after page of the narrative canvas with beautifully detailed paintings that pay little respect to the true durations or chronology of events, but instead draw out those moments of greatest laughs and tears.

And more than we tell these stories to anyone else in our lives, we tell them to ourselves. Our identities and dreams and beliefs are the products of the narratives we believe about us. We take these self-made stories about who we are at our core, and wrap ourselves with them like blankets, warding off harsh words from the outside world and wearing them about proudly like decorated armors as we march into battle.

Despite this, we spend so little time thinking deeply about how we build up these narratives about ourselves. Who are the main characters? What are the key conflicts? Do you link together the chapters chronologically, or do you present mere impressions and snapshots of the highlights, to have the reader connect the dots in the end?

To count our lives out in perfect synchronization with the irreverent clock seems ideal in a scientific sense, but there are the handful of moments that make your life, and there are the few nights that break it. The narratives that we tell ourselves are nonlinear, and the plot crosses between time and space in service of who we are and who we wish to be. It seems foolish to try to imagine a lifetime and ignore the fact that counting hours, minutes, and seconds is only one of the ways we remember its inevitable passage.

Time is not the ruler by which you should measure your life, nor the journal into which you write your story. Time simply passes by, and you hold the pen. It’s easy to simply turn a new page each day and write down what you see unfolding around you, but perhaps there are more creative ways to build your story.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Software complexity and degrees of freedom.

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