Our limited time

Friday, August 5, 2022

Lately, I have been curious about the nature of time. It rules our lives. We define ourselves by it, yet we don’t entirely understand it.

As our fourth universal dimension, time is mysterious. Albert Einstein called time an “illusion” and with his special theory of relativity, explained that time is “relative to the observer.” He also sought to prove that gravity could create time by increasing spacetime curves. I’m still not sure if I have a firm grasp on that theory, but the one Einstein quote that resonates with me the most is, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

The measurement of time is a much more human contrivance but was initially centered around natural events. As anyone who grew up watching the Lone Ranger might suspect, the Native Americans measured the passage of days in “moons,” making the night the standard unit of measure. Smaller increments of time were measured in “hands,” the amount of time it took for the moon to rise or fall, above or below an outstretched hand.

If we skip over to Northern Africa, we find that the Egyptians used a similar system, but theirs was based on light rather than darkness. The length of a day their standard unit of measurement. Somewhere around 1500 BC, the archaeological record tells us that Egyptians had developed a sundial that split the day into twelve equal parts. Those parts, however, were not static units of measure but divided daylight hours into twelve parts whether the day was long in the summer or shorter in the winter.

Over the years, mechanical methods ranged from hourglasses to dripping water and eventually the complex device that we now know as the clock. The first clocks only had hour hands, so appointments were made at “around three” or “around four.” As the mechanisms grew more complicated, devices were made to split hours into minutes and seconds.

The use of minutes and seconds combined with more reliable clock mechanisms transitioned us to more standardized sub-units of time, but the major milestone of the modern era happened at the hand of the railroad industry in 1883. Trains that traversed long distances at a relatively high rate of speed needed to publish schedules, but standard times were set in each town according to where the sun passed over them and made scheduling difficult if not impossible.

The railroads, an extremely powerful lobby at the time, prevailed upon government to establish a standardized clock for the entire continent, but the general public resisted a departure from the rise and fall of the sun as the definition of a day. The resulting compromise, balancing the need for standardized times across the country with the local tradition of tying noon to an overhead sun, created the time zones that we use today.

Reading about the history of time is great fun, and the dimensional side challenges the mind, but our awareness of time is often tied to the limited span of our lives. Much has been written about our limited lifetimes and the relative insignificance that our short lives have in the context of the greater universe.

Are we making the best of our limited time? Have we spent it wisely? Somewhere between age and unusual circumstances, I have reached a point in my life where I can see the limits of my time on the planet. I watch family and friends as they begin their transition into whatever comes next for them, and it isn’t always pretty. As in life, people nearing the end can at once be very sweet and very difficult. As hard to watch as it is, it’s a wake-up call. It sharpens the senses.

Many of us may regret a few misspent years in the past, but we can always try to find a greater meaning in life going forward. A wonderful phrase that I like to revisit periodically is the old Chinese Proverb saying, ”The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

That’s where I have arrived, and you may be there too. If not, it’s coming. Our little chunk of time looks rather minuscule compared to the age of the universe. It’s hard to imagine, perhaps even disturbing to realize how little impact we can have in our average eight decades against the backdrop of 13.7 billion years. It seems rather pointless until we remember that we share this little ant hill with almost eight billion people. If we are to have any positive impact at all, we make it with those around us. I wish I had known realized this long ago, but I certainly understand it now.

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