On Friday it was exactly a year since my Dad passed away. I mentioned it to a few people that the anniversary was coming up and everyone was shocked that a year had gone by already. I was too. A year… in the blink of an eye.
In a way, it has become a cliché. “Where did the year go?” “Time is going by so quickly”. “It’s hard to believe that Autumn is almost upon us”. We say these things as part of our small-talk these days.
But when some big event happens in your life, like the death of a family member it does force you to stop and really think, “but, where is the time actually going? Why does it feel like we’re just spinning and tumbling through the weeks, months, seasons, years without feeling the time go past?”
There are a few reasons that may explain why time seems to speed up as we get older. Partly it could be due to the fact that, for my 5 year-old daughter, one year represents 20% of her life, whereas for me one year is a mere 2.5% of my life. It could also be down to the fact that our brains process information at a different rate when we’re adults than they do when we’re children. This article from psychology today is worth a read if that kind of thing interests you.
But I also have a feeling that our perception of time speeds up when we fail to present new stimulus into our system, i.e. if we do the same thing over and over again, with each day a carbon-copy of the last one then January feels like February, which feels like March, which feels like April. And when we spend as much time indoors as most of us do these days, even the weather and the seasons can have little effect on our perception of the passing of time. We end up with no mental landmarks to allow us to psychologically mark the passage of time. It’s like the old Irish proverb says, “It’s a long road that has no turning”.
When we have novel or interesting experiences our perception of time slows down. We add a new stimulus into our system and, because of this new experience, we start to pay more attention. That’s why, when we go on holiday for three or four days, see new sights, visit new places, speak to different people, experience different customs, different food, different everything, we come back feeling like we’ve been away for much longer than we actually have.
For the past 17 months, most of us have been living our lives in a very routine way. We’ve been working from home, not travelling very far, eating at home, seeing a small group of people (or nobody at all), having the same conversations over and over again (lockdown, home-schooling, case numbers, working-from-home, variants, vaccines, reopening, blah blah blah…). So, when I tell you that my Dad died a year ago, you might remember that happening, but it doesn’t seem like a year ago. Because the whole world has been in some sort of suspended animation we feel that time is passing us by at a rate we may never have experienced before.
So we need something new to do (or to go back to something old that we haven’t done for a while) in order for us to feel engaged with life and so we can feel like we’re not just rushing headlong towards the winter, or next year, or the next decade or whatever. In a way, we need to light a fire under ourselves to go out and experience the world, learn a new skill, visit a new place (it doesn’t have to be far away), and just do something that’s outside of our regular routine. Then, by dint of this novel experience, we’ll notice that time slows down and the progress of our lives feels more like a stroll through the garden than a rush down the motorway. We get to experience fully the passage of time and stop asking ourselves and each other “Jesus, where did that year go?”.
In memory of Kevin Forde (April 1st 1949 – August 20th 2020)