(about trash, time perception, acceleration of life, and living in the moment)
Trash has marked the passage of time for me. During the winter months I spend many trash-free pre-dawn meditative mornings walking with our dog in Goodale Park. The park remains pretty tidy since fewer people are outside during that time of year. But as summer approaches, more people find the park to be a comfortable late-night drinking spot (or a pathway home from one). So I begin my warm weather weekend morning ritual, picking up and disposing of the widely scattered bottles and cans that have accumulated during overnight revelry in the southeast end of our park.
I suspect that I will be picking up trash there for the next few months. But the time will pass quickly, and before I know it, summer will be over (again), the park will become more tidy (again), and strangely, it will seem to have passed even more quickly than summer did last year.
Summers used to be longer. When I was in elementary school, summer seemed to last forever. It lasted so long that I forgot everything I had learned in the previous grade, and I was grateful that on our first day of math, we always began with a lesson about sets (a pride of lions, a gaggle of geese) that required no real thinking on my part.
I experienced time differently when I was young. All good things seemed to last longer, and I think I know why. I believe that my memories of longer summers are due to a phenomenon that I call Temporal Proportionality. This phenomenon is hidden from our conscious minds while we experience it, but with some simple calculations and reflections on how our memory works, it is easily revealed.
Temporal Proportionality can be understood using my own birthday as a starting point: I was born on the summer solstice, so my very first summer (technically defined as the three months between the solstice and the equinox) comprised 100% of my life.
My second summer (from birthday to mid-September) was 20% of my life (three months out of fifteen).
This upcoming summer will comprise only about 0.5% of my life. You get the idea.
Every subsequent summer represents an exponentially decreasing slice of my entire life. Because of this, I experience an erosion of relative time. This upcoming summer is, relatively speaking, shorter (with respect to the rest of my life) than all of my previously experienced summers. This dramatic proportionality dooms all of us to experience life in foot-to-the-floor acceleration. By definition, life can never slow down.
Compounding this problem is another effect, which usually causes us to remember our summers (and other events) differently as we get older. We seem to experience life in discrete time segments. In other words, our experiences aren’t continuous; they’re incremental, like individual frames of a movie.
The components (or moments) of our life experiences are like these frames of movie film. When I was in middle school, I made little films of my friends with a Super-8 movie camera, capturing (and sometimes modifying) these moments.
I could make my friends appear to move in slow motion in the projected movie by speeding up the film in the camera. I typically filmed at 18 frames-per-second (fps), so when I filmed at 54 fps, it played back (at 18 fps) with people (and everything else) appearing to move slower. The filming process is like our experiences, and the projected movie is like our memory, with each of our “moments” like individual frames of movie film.
Many people experience this phenomenon most clearly during an accident. When my friend Tim Hatfield remembers the white-knuckled moments before he totaled his car, he says that he experiences it in slow motion. He remembers it as being a longer experience than it really was. I believe this is because during those completely frightening moments, Tim was more intensely present. He was present “in the moment”, or in each and every moment. He was more attentive, so he was essentially experiencing and remembering more “frames per second”. When he plays them back, they’re always at the regular “projector speed” of memory, so they are experienced as slower (or longer) than the original event, just like my Super-8 movies.
This is also just like my childhood summers. I think that I lived those earlier summers more joyfully in the moment, more aware of life, more awake to the wonders of everything that surrounded me, so when I recall these memories, they seem longer.
I am embarrassed that as I have grown older I’ve become wonder-flabby, caught up in the distracted reactivity of busy-ness, often failing to pay attention. I experience the opposite of the proactive process of the wonder-full, and recall my more recent summers as faster, and shorter.
There is, of course, good news; there’s an opportunity for personal transformation. I can recapture those long summers if I can just learn to live in the moment. And, in fact, I have experienced this. My memory of our vacation in Ireland seems much longer than the ten days that appear in my calendar. That trip was filled each day, almost each hour, with the generous hospitality of the Irish people and the breathtaking beauty of their country, along with my corresponding rapt attention. I spent those days experiencing way more frames per second than usual, and it shows in my memory.
Living in the moment is also one of the gifts that my children have given to me, especially when they were very young and very curious about exploring the world. As a young father, I would sometimes feel rushed as I was “slowed down” by my children, who excitedly waved me back to look at a particular bug, invited me to dance in the kitchen before school, or led me to a fairy garden.
I always complied, but sometimes initially did so grudgingly. Then, as if my soul was being gently awakened, I would realize the gift that I was receiving.
And perhaps this is one of the reasons why children are so important; they have the power to help us to relearn (or unlearn) in order to see the newness and wonder in everything, if we can just slow down enough to pay attention to the abundance around us. Maybe we can experience life with extra “frames per second” this year. As Julie Hallan entreated us in the latest Friends of Goodale Park newsletter, “Let’s get out there and live a little this summer.” If we do, this one could be gloriously long.