When you’re a kid, eternity is some sort of cousin to fifth grade — at least I felt like the two were on the same endless branch of a family tree.
And I felt suspicious of this golden privilege of “adulthood” that I’d supposedly one day reach. Grownups tell children that “one day you’ll be an adult and then you can do it your way,” but as a kid, I remember questioning the truth in that, feeling that, in fact, time stood still, unchanging as grade school. I was what I was, a kid, as I would always be.
It’s strange to recall that hopeless feeling of being trapped in an eternal fifth grade, the idea that I’d never get beyond bookbags, homework and meal money.
Because a quarter century has since passed. And somewhere in those years, I got my wish, eventually crossing the line into adulthood.
Perhaps that status comes with graduation, a first vote, or a first “yes, sir” directed at you, not from you. Certain events stand as flagpoles in the sands of gradual change.
There are those constant reminders that yet another year has passed, the surprise I feel when someone seems to step directly out of a Little League photo into a wedding announcement.
“UGA students keep looking younger and younger,” I said to my dad, noting how I feel older and older when I venture onto the Athens campus.
“Yeah, well, it only gets worse,” he said.
Perhaps the acceleration of years shouldn’t surprise any of us. We know that as we grow older each year becomes a smaller fraction of our life. For instance, a year represents 10 percent of a 10-year-old’s life, two percent of a 50 year-old’s existence and only one percent of a 100-year-old’s time on the planet. Doesn’t it make sense then, for years to seem shorter and shorter in the context of our lives?
The famous psychologist William James wrote that the same span of time may seem entirely different for different creatures.
“Suppose we were able, within the length of a second, to note 10,000 events distinctly, instead of barely 10, as now; if our life were then destined to hold the same number of impressions, it might be 1,000 times as short,” said James. “We should live less than a month, and personally know nothing of the change of seasons.”
In James’ scenario, a life may be shorter, but just as full, because more experience, more impressions, have been packed into a certain amount of time.
It’s interesting to think of butterflies or cats or dogs in this regard. Is such a fullness of experience true for creatures with a shorter lifespan than humans?
I read an interesting article in The New Yorker by Dr. Oliver Sacks, who spoke of patients afflicted with neurological disorders. He noted that brain injury can lead patients to believe that very little time has passed, when, in fact, hours have ticked off the clock.
Sacks spoke of one patient who would sit in the hallway, motionless for hours “with his right arm often lifted, sometimes an inch or two above his knee, sometimes near his face.”
“When I questioned him about these frozen poses, he asked indignantly, ‘What do you mean, ‘frozen poses’? I was just wiping my nose.’” Sacks took a series of photos over several hours and determined that the patient “was wiping his nose but was doing so a thousand times more slowly than normal.”
We all hear the ticking of the clock, but such perception is relative to our condition, our age.
And we have a scientific theory that shows us that time itself is not as simple as we think, not necessarily a pure linear movement. It can bend. Einstein showed us that objects traveling at different speeds can observe different times, the theory holding, for instance, that an astronaut who travels at a great speed through space won’t age as quickly as those on earth.
That’s truly mind-boggling stuff.
But you don’t need a PhD in physics to recognize the puzzling nature of time in our everyday lives.
It surely speeds up for us all. If you don’t see that, then you’re probably in grade school waiting on the bell.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.