A few years ago I mentioned to one of my uncles that the years seemed to go by more quickly than they had before, and he told me that they only get quicker from here on in. At first I wondered why this should be, until I realised that, if you really think about it, it’s completely logical. As humans, our perception of time can be as important as the independent, ‘true’ rate of time. When you were five, a year constituted fully one fifth of your life; when you’re fifty, it will constitute only one fiftieth. The result: a year will seem ten times as fast to a fifty-year-old as it will to a five-year-old.
Knowing this objectively, however, does little to remove the subjective feelings the passage of time engenders, in much the same way as knowing that thinking about a song and then hearing it on the radio later that day isn’t ‘weird’ at all (consider all the songs you think about which do not turn up on radio later the same day). What I mean is, because both of these things are processed by our minds in a certain way, they bring up feelings which it is difficult to rationalise away.
There are, of course, other events, both external and internal, which drive our sense of time. Our progression through various stages of schooling; the maturing and, later, decay of our bodies; our journey through various relationships to a family life, in various forms; the changes in our various tastes and in our emotions. All these things, as well as the rhythms of day and night, month and year, summer and winter, combine to add to our sense of time’s flow.
The other factor we must consider is entropy, the driver behind the wheel of time’s arrow. This direction, from past to present to future, is written into the fabric of the universe. (Perhaps this is the true existential meaning behind the otherwise vapid pop group’s moniker.) ‘Things fall apart,’ Yeats famously wrote, his subdued fanfare proclaiming the emergence of modernism, ‘the centre cannot hold.’ I have no idea whether Yeats were a physicist or not, but to me his words are entropy translated for humans. Things decay, bodies wear out, people grow old.
Now, that fact that our ultimate fate is in dissolution, even for our universe (see ‘heat death’), can of course have a bearing on the way we view our lives, can bring a sense of futility to our actions. I myself have been tempted by this view from time to time. But to think in this misses a key component of human happiness: our enjoyment is always in the present. To know a moment will end, a house may burn, a love will die, does not prevent one from enjoying those things now. In fact, this knowledge can bring a certain relevance to our enjoyment, a determination to live in the moment and make the most of the joy we have.
‘Death is the mother of beauty.’ So wrote Wallace Stevens (yes, more poetry; get involved), and such is an essential facet of our experience and our appreciation of those people, things, and times which we find wondrous and worth having. Time will ultimately kill us, but, in a curiously human way, it is only because of time that we are able to experience beauty at all.