How (not) to perceive time

How constant are they?

It would greatly surprise me if there was even one of you who had never before meditated on the fickleness of our perception of time. As for myself, it has been, if not one of my favorite topics of meditation over the past year, at least my most frequent. With the end of my college years, and having my girlfriend spend a semester abroad, and then going abroad myself, the time comparison game was and is one with which I often torture myself and in which I rarely (if ever) find any solace.

“How can it be that the same amount of time elapsed between events X and Y as between events Y and Z? The time between Y and Z felt so much longer! How is it that Time XZ can feel shorter than Time YZ?!”

“Oh my god, it’s going to be 6 more long months before I can do this, that, and the other!”

“Oh my god, I’m only going to be in France for 6 more months! So much to do, and so little time!”

The mind’s perception of time seems to directly contradict itself for no purpose whatsoever.

Montaigne writes on constancy. What he means by this seems to be bravery in the face of an imminent and unavoidable physical threat.  Of course, getting shot at was a more common thing in his day. Guns weren’t very accurate back then, but in the middle of a battlefield there would have been nowhere to hide or run to. So the question was: why besmirch your dignity by jumping around spastically or by cowering in fear, when either action was as little likely to dodge the bullet or cannonball as simply standing calmly (“constantly”)?

He is rather forgiving though, and thinks that it is only natural to flinch in response to some loud and unexpected noise, or to duck when a cannon is fired at you. He gives anecdotal evidence about how such evasive maneuvering saved the life of Lorenzo de Medici who otherwise would have received a heart-breaking cannonball in the chest. The main thing for Montaigne is not letting such jitters get the better of your reason:

“Neither do the Stoics pretend that the soul of their philosopher need be proof against the first visions and fantasies that surprise him; but as to a natural subjection, consent that he should tremble at the terrible noise of thunder, or the sudden clatter of some falling ruin, and be affrighted even to paleness and convulsion; and so in other passions, provided his judgment remain sound and entire, and that the seat of his reason suffer no concussion or alteration, and that he yield no consent to his fright and discomposure.”

Constancy as such can nowadays rarely be employed (thankfully). Instead we should put it in our service against our dubious perception of time, neither letting it paralyze us under its perceived weight and longevity, nor letting it drive us into a frenzy of unsustainable activity and agitation at its perceived brevity or transience.

(Of course, when I say we I mean I, and maybe you if you have the same problem).

Instead of balking at the threat, see it, understand it, and act for the best—whether that be calmly sitting in the French countryside reading French literature, treating yourself to a nice fancy French dinner, or taking (almost) spontaneous trips to see new places.

“Assembly of Japanese bicycle require great peace of mind.” So does living abroad.

First-year Jimmy stares down the future.

5 thoughts on “How (not) to perceive time

  1. Mike says:

    I guess that the older you get, the faster time seems able to fly by. Enjoy those peaceful days in the French countryside. Take a nap after a nice lunch in a cafe. Take the train to Mont St Michel and enjoy the Brittany/Norman coastline. Just hope that the beach isn’t filled with older German (clothing optional) women.

  2. Grandma & Grandad says:

    Oh Jimmy! You are way beyond us old folks! Please do enjoy Mon St Michele! It is a magical place!

  3. Dan says:

    Loved this post! Keep em’ up.

  4. Kyle says:

    The quote poster! Do you still have that?

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