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Sunday
Nov072010

Ways of Looking at, and Experiencing, Time

Last night virtually the entire nation moved its clocks back an hour as we went from Daylight to Standard time. There always seems to be something magical, mystical, and cosmic in this annual ritual, and so I decided to make time the subject of today's post.

A very common sub-theme of issues that clients bring to me is the idea that "time is running out".  Examples: "If I don't go back to school soon, it will be too late"; "My biological clock is ticking and if I don't meet a man with whom to have a child soon I never will be able to", ""If I don't find a job soon how will I ever be able to explain the gap in my resume?", "I'm over 60 years old, who will ever want to hire me?".

Is time "real"?  Most physicists argue that it is, although there are dissenters: people who believe that time is a human construct, such as the eminent philosopher Emmanuel Kant.  Time as we experience it, though, is not the fixed quantity we usually imagine it to be, as is evidenced in how different five seconds can feel when in a car crash. when running to catch a train, or when holding one's breath.  There is also the universally experienced phenomenon of time moving faster as we get older: a week to a five-year-old can feel like an eternity, and even an hour can seem almost interminable ("Are we there yet?").

We almost never make optimal use of time when we think it is running out, because in that situation we are operating from fear, and fear's perspective is a distorted one.  True, it can be immensely useful if we are being threatened by some dangerous outside source (a vicious dog or an oncoming runaway vehicle), but in the vast majority of situations we are likely to encounter a calm consideration of alternatives will yield a better solution than one springing from fear.  This is because creativity is maximized when there is freedom to examine many alternatives, and to think "outside the box".  Feeling pressured by a deadline inevitably narrows the scope of our thinking because we can more quickly sort through a limited number of options than inventing whole series of new ones.

Time has another potentially negative impact on our lives in the tyranny that age imposes on most of us.  In our culture, certain milestones of age tend to dictate mindsets and behavioral norms.  A teenager is expected to, and allowed to, act in ways that a 25-year-old shouldn't.  An entirely different, and often very limiting, set of expectations surrounds "seniors".  The September-October issue of Harvard magazine describes an experiment conducted in 1981 by the well-known psychologist (and mindfulness proponent) Ellen Langer.  She took two groups of elderly men (70s and 80s) and had them driven to a monastery in rural New Hampshire. Both spent a week there.  One group was asked to pretend that they were living 30 years earlier (in the 1950s), the other simply to reminisce about that time. Each group was surrounded by artifacts of the era, including a black-and white TV, old radio programs, and issues of Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. After only one week, pre and post measurements revealed that both groups of men were stronger and more flexible.  Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision, and intelligence test results all improved, and their fingers were not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis.  But the group of men who were told to act as if they were younger showed significantly greater improvement.

Langer's conclusion: "It is not our physical state that limits us" - it is our mindset about our own limits and our perceptions of the impact of time that draws the lines in the sand.  Rarely had such dramatic evidence backed her conclusion, but in the past 30 years evidence has continued to accumulate confirming thought / belief's ability to impact the body, and today it is a well-accepted truism.

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