Musings: On The Perception Of Time

An arborist once told us that the big Silver Maple (that I like to think of as the guardian of this property) could be a hundred plus years old. How the world has changed in those years, including the land surrounding the stately tree…but the tree has many more years to live, so what seems like a long lifetime in human years may just be middle age for the tree. With a life expectancy of, say, 200 years, human perspective would surely be altered.

When I was younger, time didn’t hold high priority with me: I spent many hours a day (up to 5) commuting to jobs where much of my time was spent in unproductive meetings. Now, my time is more valuable to me than money. So why does it seem to fly by? Is it because I am now cognizant of the passage of time, or because I appreciate my time more? Either way, it hardly seems fair.

Conversely, the enchanting Swallowtail Butterly lives for a couple of weeks to possibly a month, tops. A veritable flash in linear time, but I imagine that it must be perceived very differently by the butterfly, which has worked so hard to transform into its last, incredibly beautiful, incarnation. Many people facing a two week existence would most likely despair, largely because our frame of reference is “average life expectancy”…which we take, erroneously, to mean that we can expect to live that long; an average includes higher and lower numbers – people who’ve lived longer and shorter life spans – and none of us knows where we’ll fall on the life span spectrum. And yet we continue to live for the future, assuming that there will be time, later, for the things that we can’t get to now.

There are those humans, though, who are capable of accepting even the shortest of timeframes for existence on this plane and making peace with it – how they do it, I don’t know. If I were faced with only having two weeks left, I would spend them getting my affairs in order (like making sure my spouse knows where important documents were, saying goodbye to friends, closing social media accounts, etc.) – I wouldn’t want someone else to have to do “clean up” after I’m gone. And I’d spend as much time as possible with the ones who make life worth living, trying to convey to them how thankful I am that I enjoyed their companionship (and antics), even when it didn’t seem like it. Ultimately, I’d still feel as though I’d been wronged, shorted some decades during which I could have “accomplished” more. I am, after all, only human.

With the changing of the seasons, I see the natural cycle of life continue, and it reminds me that I, too, am a part of it. And that I should really make the most of my time while I can. It’s really all about perspective, isn’t it? With no tenure here guaranteed, each day really is a gift and a choice; the choice must be to try to focus on what’s good and beautiful in the world – the music, Nature, literature, art, kindness – and keep the ugliness – self-absorption, cruelty, ignorance, indifference – in perspective.

I’ve known for a long time that I can only control my own behavior, and despite how frustrating it is to see people doing things that harm or annoy others without care, I can’t change them. No “education”, no persuasion is going to influence them. I’d be wasting my energy on a futile effort. Instead, I choose to spend my precious time in the company of people whom I respect, people of similar philosophy and goals. While vastly outnumbered, there are still good people who try to do good in this world, even in small ways – a neighbor, for example, who lets a large field grow wild and fill with flowers. It becomes a butterfly haven and dragonfly playground. Not mowing that field means he’ll basically have to bush hog it in the fall, but it also means that many pollinators and other animals have a safe place to live in an area where most of the properties have been cleared for livestock or manicured lawns.

If I could live to be 200 years old – not that I’d want to – I could probably relax a little about being productive; after all, a few days spent reading and lounging about would be a mere “drop in the bucket”, timewise. The Puritan work ethic, arguably underpinning American attitudes about productivity, motivates many to cram their days full of activities and projects, and, worse yet, to feel guilty if they can’t demonstrate what they produced with their time. I get that nagging feeling if I just want to sit and read or compose poetry sometimes – I could be doing something productive, instead. Ridiculousness, but, socially, it’s clearly ingrained and reinforced: art and leisure time are frippery. I wholeheartedly disagree, and yet, that insidious edginess persists. This article by Oliver Burkeman sheds more light on this trap and the counterproductiveness of this approach.

I’m going to embrace some frippery…and I think the venerable tree would approve.

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