where does the time go?


    I was getting ready for work yesterday morning when I heard the teaser on NPR about a story to play that afternoon asking, “Why does time fly when you get older?” I smiled, one, because I knew I would have to find the story later to hear what they said (I don’t get to listen at work), and, two, because I have my own working theory. I’ll start with the latter.

    When you’re four years old and summer seems to last forever and birthdays take forever to arrive, time moves slowly because each year is such a significant fraction of life as a whole: at four, a year is a quarter of your existence. When you’re, say, fifty-three (as I am), that same year is one fifty-third of your total life – a much smaller fraction – and that year flies by. I think it also makes a difference that a four year old has the afternoon to chase butterflies and play in the yard (though today’s four year olds appear to be much more tightly scheduled, I’ll admit) and the days at fifty-three are pretty full. I had a prep list that made my afternoon move along quite briskly, thank you.

    When I got home tonight and had a chance to read the story on the NPR website, I was pleased to see that my theory of how time flies made the short list, along with a couple of other ways of explaining how we understand and remember the days we live through, which were all very interesting. There’s another reason time appears to be gaining speed, or perhaps even gaining ground, that the article didn’t mention: death. At four, and for several years afterwards, life is an unending prospect, therefore any sense of having to keep time is way down the list. Everyday feels like it lasts forever because you feel like you’re going to last forever. Again, at fifty-three, not so much. And I’m not just talking about aging.

    My friend David has been gone a little over a month now. For whatever reasons, Facebook keeps inviting me to reconnect with him, which I would love to do and I have even written on his page in the last week, but the truth is I can’t. I’m out of time. Time feels shorter because I ran out of it with him. Davy died too soon, yet I am aware I am entering a phase of life where saying goodbye to friends is going to become part of the fabric of my existence with greater consistency, and I’m left wondering how time could pass so quickly as to bring us to a closing scene.

    My reading of Genesis has lead me to think of Eden as Paradise partly because there were no clocks. Time was not an issue. God came and walked with them in the cool of the evening and it didn’t really matter what day it was, only that it was time to walk. Sunrise brought a new day, sunset brought a new night, each one a link in a chain of eternal possibilities. The serpent promised the fruit would give Adam and Eve knowledge and what they learned was how to tell time. Well, they learned they couldn’t tell time anything; they learned how to tell time was passing. When Cain murdered his brother and death became part of the picture, it was time for a calendar: what day it was mattered because there weren’t that many of them.

    Yet, if we only think of time as the string of moments that take us from Beginning to End, we’re not getting the whole picture. When we talk about light, we can describe it as both a particle and a beam, a point and a progression. Both things are true, though we aren’t capable of seeing both things at once. Time, I think, is much the same. It is a particular moment, a sequence of events, a span of emptiness, a culmination of a lifetime, a river of existence, a circle of gratitude. Perhaps time passes more quickly as we age because we begin to understand more of what it is, more of the layers of our lives.

    Then again, perhaps it passes more quickly because we begin to see how little we understand. Look at the verbs we use: we tell, take, make, spend, waste, save, do, have, lose, mark, and keep time, to name a few. Still, our predominant perspective is one of a ticking clock: we are on a limited schedule; time is running out. I’ve been reminded this week of the old gospel songs about heaven because I’ve been immersed in Patty Griffin’s new gospel record, Downtown Church. One of the songs she sings is James Moore’s “Never Grow Old”:

    I have heard of a land on the faraway strand
    ’tis a beautiful home of the soul
    built by Jesus on high, where we never shall die
    ’tis a land where we never grow old

    never grow old, never grow old
    in a land where we’ll never grow old
    never grow old, never grow old
    in a land where we’ll never grow old

    Many of those old heaven songs grew out of the first twenty or thirty years of the last decade, during The Great War and The Great Depression. I’ve mostly thought of them as escapist, but tonight, as I try once more to understand time, I wonder if I have sold them short. Instead of wanting out of this world, perhaps they see time as a dimension, a layer of life, that is clouded by clocks in this phase of our existence. What eternity offers is a return, or better a restoration, of time in its wholeness, meant to be something full of possibilities rather than being relegated to regulating how close we are to death. OK, so that was a little esoteric. My point is we are not held hostage by the clocks counting down to this life, as we know it, coming to an end. Yes, the limits and obligations of our existence are real, but they are not the final word. One day we will get to a place where we know the four year old’s endless afternoon was truer than our sense of impending doom. What Jesus defeated on the cross was death, which means clocks don’t count when it all is said and done, and life is too short to be consumed with what’s next on the schedule.



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