John Steinbeck (1902-1968), born in Salinas, California, came from a family of moderate means. He attended Stanford University but never graduated. In 1925 he went to New York where he tried for a few years to establish himself as a free-lance writer, but he failed and returned to California. After publishing several novels and short stories, Steinbeck became known as one of the best writers of social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labor. His most famous work was “The Grapes of Wrath.”
In his Book, East of Eden, Steinbeck has two characters named Adam and Samuel sitting together in Adam’s restaurant talking about the good old days. As their conversation progressed, Samuel told Adam that there were two stories in the Bible that had haunted him for a long time. They were the stories of Adam and Eve committing the original sin, and Cain killing Abel. Samuel said his wife Liza gets mad at him because he’s always trying to figure out what these stories are trying to tell us. As the day quickly passed and the skies began to darken, Samuel turned to Adam and said, “Lord, how the day passes! It is like a life, [it passes] so quickly when we don’t watch it, and so slowly if we do.”1
There have been some interesting thoughts and theories about how quickly time seems to fly by for most of us. For instance, a French psychologist and neurologist named Pierre Janet (1859-1947) stated in 1877 that time seemed to speed up as we get older because each new experience becomes a smaller and smaller fraction of our life the longer we live here on earth.
But this does bring up a good point about ratios. I’m sure it’s something that many people have thought of probably a million times or more. When you’re five, a year represents 20% of your lifespan. When you’re fifty, it’s a measly 2% of your lifespan. What makes this idea appeal to most of us is that we have noticed that our sense of history changes as we get older. For instance, I was born in 1938, so the events of the 20s and 30s were to me “recent” history. So when I reached 50, those same decades were now old history. And now that I am 80 years old, they are ancient history.
In the meantime, I’ve assimilated a lot of history. So it isn’t so much that what happened back in the 1930s is so old, it’s that a lot of history has been jammed in my mind in between. And that could make more distant things seem more familiar. But it could also be that I project a shadow of my own life, that gets longer and longer, back to the year of my birth, so anything that falls within that shadow is considered “nearest history.”
In my mind, World War II was just a few years ago, and the Korean Conflict and Vietnamese War were just like yesterday. All this makes me think that the length of my own life is something of a default measuring rod for time. But here’s the strange thing, from my earliest years starting with Kindergarten and going on through High School, seemed to have gone slowly. I can remember so many incidents very clearly. But my nine-year service in the military and my six years as a missionary in Europe seem to be more compact. And from the time I graduated from Seminary up through my mission service in Asia, time went by way too quickly. So it is no wonder that as I sat and watched the scary predictions of Y2K in 1999, I am now writing the date of 2018 and it all seems like a flash. So the ratio of time that occupies our mind and memory is what makes time go by so fast.
Another thing that seems to be the calendar on the wall of our mind is “memories.” This is because we seem to store more vivid memories when we are younger than when we are older. This might happen for at least two reasons. First, when we are young, everything is new. And, when things are new, they are more exciting or more terrific. And, when events are more emotionally charged, we are more likely to record them as memories.
Secondly, as we get older we describe our experience in larger chunks. Ask a child how they got home and they will tell you they left school, got chased by a bully, found a rock to kick around, kicked it until it hopped the curb near the mean dog’s yard, found another rock to kick, got teased by a girl, and so forth. Ask an adult, they’ll tell you simply that they drove home. So figuratively speaking, the first ten years of our life take up a lot of room in our memory, while the last ten years of our lives only seem like the size of a postage stamp.
And perhaps time seems to pass more quickly for another reason entirely. Psychologists tell us that with people who suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder, where different personalities taking charge at different times, and with no shared memory of what happens when other personalities are in control, there must often be large gaps in their experience. Those with DID must feel like they are “losing time” on a regular basis. And, as a result, time must seem to them to move even faster than it seems to move for us.
However, we don’t need to be suffering from DID in order for us to feel like we have lost time in life. Can you remember when you were reading a book or playing a game of solitaire and told yourself that you might finish the chapter or complete the hand in solitaire in 15 minutes? You finally got to bed at midnight. And the next thing you know, the alarm is going off and you have to get up, take a shower, and get ready for work.
Sometimes this happened because we don’t stick to our plan and keep saying “just one more thing.” But often it’s because it took longer than expected to finish our original quest. Perhaps we got sidetracked along the way. Or maybe we didn’t realize how many things we wanted to do before we quit. Regardless, it was always something of a surprise when the alarm went off. What we started out to do in 30 minutes, ended up being completed 300 minutes later. Where did all that time go?
Why do we overshoot our estimates so regularly? It could be because when we make an estimate we think about our project at a high level of abstraction, and that precludes us from seeing all the obstacles and conflicts we still have to resolve. It could also be because even if we allow ourselves some cushion, we tend to fill up the extra time by wanting to get more done than what we originally planned to do. And then, as usual, we go on to encounter unexpected complications. What is important to remember is that when we blow past deadlines and finish projects much later than expected, we tend to feel like we’ve lost time. And this contributes to the sense that time is moving faster than it should.
In a 2005 paper, researchers Wittman and Lehnhoff asked study participants: “How fast did the last 10 years pass for you?” And what they found was that to older a person got the faster time seemed to pass by – at least until they got into their 50s. After that point, between 50 and 90 people’s ratings for the speed of time passing leveled off to an average speed. So it does seem to be true if we keep running past our time estimates and it does make us feel like we’re losing time. So maybe we need to start sticking to the deadlines we set for ourselves.
Wittman and Lehnhoff also asked people how much they resonated with being under pressure to do things by a certain time. People from their late teens until their early 50s said it didn’t bother them that much, but not as well after that point. Linking the two findings, Wittman and Lehnhoff suggested that time pressure might be one of the factors causing passing time to accelerate for people as they grow older. And that makes some sense. People tend to work and make decisions under pressure quite a bit between the ages of 16 and 50. And they do feel like time moves more quickly when under pressure.
These are the kinds of things that can wake us up at 2 am, filled with despair at the passing of time and the dwindling hope that we will ever make anything of ourselves. And, if our main first-person running commentary throughout our lives involves the thought “there’s never enough time,” is it any wonder we feel like time is passing more quickly than it should? If we feel that time is moving too quickly, and we’d like to slow it down a bit, here are some suggestions that I found that might be very helpful:
First, close all the doors on all your unfinished business or things you which you would have done differently. Keeping the doors open will cause your mind to constantly going back over and over things you can’t change. These open doors distract you from the task at hand and create stress. They are one of the reasons things take longer than they should. And they add to the feeling that there’s never enough time to get everything done.
Secondly, take on projects you know you can complete in the time allotted. The larger your project, the more likely you are to blow past your estimated completion time. Then you will overshoot it by a larger margin, and that results in more “lost time.” If you can arrange your work to be a series of one-week or two-week projects instead of four-month or six-month projects, you will complete more projects in the same amount of time and will have a smaller percentage of “lost time.” So as they often say, “Stop to smell the Roses.” To the extent that the effect is caused by dwindling “memory density,” we can slow time down by stopping to smell the roses more often. This is another way of saying, enjoy what you’ve already completed before you go on.
So, while we may resist the advice to “always” live in the present, we can agree that most people need to slow down and be present more often than they currently are if for no other reason that time will seem to move more slowly. This doesn’t mean that you a killing time. In fact, there is no such thing. Time is in our hands one second at a time, we can either use it or lose it. Taking time to contemplate what our goal is and why it is so important to finish what we are doing in a certain amount of time, is not wasting time. In fact, it has proven to be a reliable way to change despair into acceptance and hope.
But will this work for you? Just think of a believer who keeps telling themselves that all of the things they must do here on earth increases their “longing for heaven.” They are anticipating a state of existence that is better than their current situation, and this desired state is still a long way off. This bit of cognitive re-framing moves them from a state of very clearly wanting time to slow down, to a state of wanting time to speed up.
The Bible is not silent on this subject. The ancient wise man, Job, once told his friends that even though we were born yesterday, we still don’t know all we should know today. That’s because life here on earth is like a fading shadow.2 In other words, we’re not going to know everything, or even remember everything we have learned. But since life is passing so swiftly, use what you do know and what you do remember to get the job done. Don’t fret over what you don’t know.
In fact, the psalmist said that we should keep in mind that our life here on earth is short and that every minute counts. So use each second, minute, hour, day, week, month, and year because they won’t come around again to do things over.3 Later on, another psalmist stated that when compared time here on earth to eternity, all of a person’s life is no more that one breath.4 As God tells time, we are here today and gone tomorrow, like the shadow of a passing bird. So make each day count.
Wise King Solomon cautioned about anyone who brags about what they are going to do tomorrow.5 First, you don’t know if you’ll be here tomorrow. And secondly, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring that you will have to deal with. Later on, in another book, Solomon clearly points out in a sermon that life is not just a passing of time. That for everything we do in life there is an appointed time.6 The problem is, we often spend time meant for something important on something that is meaningless when it comes to our future.
That’s why when Jesus came, He wanted His followers to know that time should not be wasted on frivolous things. He said to them: “All of us must quickly carry out the tasks assigned to us by the one who sent me, for there is little time left before the night falls and all work comes to an end.”7 In Jesus’ day, there were no electric lights. Everything was done at night by the light of candles or oil lamps. What He was trying to impress on His disciples was that the day was coming when there would run out of candles and oil for their lamps, so get done all that you can while there is still light outside.
Then one of Jesus’ disciples, the Apostle James, expands on what Jesus said. He told his readers, “Listen up! You people who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we are going to such and such a town, stay there a year and open up a profitable business.’ How do you know what is going to happen tomorrow? For the length of your lives is as uncertain as the morning fog – now you see it; now you don’t. What you ought to say is, ‘If it’s the Lord’s will I plan to live my life to do what He tells me to do.’ Otherwise, you will be bragging about what you want to do, and that kind of egotism never pleases God.”8
So we may end up saying what Samuel said in Steinbeck’s book about how the day passes! It’s like life that seems to pass so quickly when we don’t watch it, and so slowly when we do. While this is so true, it doesn’t give us the instructions on what we should be doing with our time. We may be able to borrow money from the bank, but we cannot save time from yesterday or borrow time from tomorrow. Remember, every second wasted is a second you will never get back to use over again the right way. – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Copyright 1952, Penguin Books, New York, 2003, Chapter 4
2 Job 8:9
3 Psalm 90:12
4 Ibid. 144:4
5 Proverbs 27:1
6 Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
7 John 9:4
8 James 4:13-16