Measuring Time | Views from the Rain Shadow

Donald Stull
Posted 11/6/20

Humans have many ways to measure time. In most Western cultures, we think of time as a weird combination of linear and circular. Of course, circular is still linear to someone who uses calculus. We …

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Measuring Time | Views from the Rain Shadow


Humans have many ways to measure time.

In most Western cultures, we think of time as a weird combination of linear and circular.

Of course, circular is still linear to someone who uses calculus. We will often mark key points in the annual “cycle,” such as the seasons, or holidays. We generally use these to mark our position in some linear or circular unfolding of time: “Another trip around the sun.”

I don’t claim to be someone who can speak about the physics of time, only its experiential aspects. Time seems to go too slowly when you’re a kid waiting for Christmas morning. Monday comes way too fast.

I’m still fascinated that I can go to sleep and many hours later, according to my clock, I wake up. To me, it’s only been a moment since I went to sleep. If I watched myself sleep, would I actually watch myself for hours and I would be asleep for all those hours? Is it possible that by being asleep I’ve condensed time? Thinking about this makes me want to take a nap.

Humans also seem to have a need to mark time — a kind of benchmark — and then talk about before and after that benchmark. We have B.C. and A.D. to mark a key transition in Western history. We have pre-season and post-season in sports. We have the lead-up to and then the “holiday season.”

I was not around when WWII ended but I learned that there were definitive endings for both the European and Pacific wars. The Great Depression and the more recent Great Recession of 2007-20?? had somewhat less defined endings. Maybe they are like relationships: you kind of sense when things went wonky, but the exact date of the demise can only be marked by a divorce settlement or when the other person moves out.

Now we seem to mark our passing of time in terms of COVID-19. “Once this pandemic is over, I plan to do/see/go….” We’re in the midst of this pandemic and we’re already talking about what we’ll do when it’s over. But, like the Great Depression or Great Recession, will we know “when” it’s over? There may be a miracle cure, but will it be a specific event or date? Can any of us say when the polio epidemic was “over?” Measles continues to this day thanks to anti-vaxers. Our sense of the COVID-19 pandemic being “over” will probably only occur in retrospect. Backwards time.

It may be inherent in Western cultures to think of time in a particular way and to mark the passing of time. Of course, marking the “passing of time” is an inherently problematic pastime. It reflects a view that time is immutable and linear.

I’m not suggesting that we can go back and forth in time. I spent some time when I was a student at UW trying to figure out if one could go back in time, but it required making some assumptions about time and its relation to the speed of light. Or something like that. I can’t remember. That was a long time ago.

Perhaps we humans need a more malleable conception of time. I have a dog, an infinitely brilliant and non-reflective Jack Russell terrier. By non-reflective, I mean that he doesn’t reflect on time or his place in time and space. He just IS. He thinks about the moment. At least I think that’s what he thinks. (This may be the topic of another mulling of existential spices for this blog.) My JR naps when he’s tired (or bored); he chases deer and rabbits in the yard when they appear; he eats when he’s hungry. None of this is according to schedule.

Humans are locked into specific schedules and rhythms and we’re always trying to squeeze more time, or more productive time, from our day. As if that would make us happier, more successful, more complete.

I subscribe to Medium, an online publishing platform. There are countless articles about using your time in better ways. Things like: How to schedule your day for optimal productivity. How to schedule your priorities, not your time. How to find time in your busy schedule to do X, Y, Z. A new way to schedule your work week.

I am certain my JR does not worry about these things. I should spend more time with him to learn how to spend my time better.

Wishing you peace and happiness.