Thoughts on Time

I have a fear of getting older, of becoming sick. A fear of my lungs failing, losing my ability to move in this world. A fear of spending my most valuable days wasting behind a screen, wasting my most mobile years sitting at a desk, wasting the vitality of relative youth in one city, in one location. I want to tell you how I finally understand that time truly is the currency of life.

This is the thing that has become clear and sharp and deadly, like frozen icicles hanging precariously above my front door in warming weather. Time is a commodity that cannot be renewed, cannot be traded or bargained for. We can’t stuff it under the mattress or grow it in the market. It is finite and it is limited. And we don’t know when it runs out.

How are we to know if our time slowly runs down, the irreplaceable battery causing the hands on our pocket watch to fade into non-movement? Or maybe our pocket watch falls out of our purse, smashing to the ground, time no longer ticking. We don’t know if we can be fixed. We don’t know if we can wind us back up, take another swing at life.

When we are young, we rarely think about these things, don’t you agree? Unless we are confronted with death, thoughts of mortality are thin whispers barely audible in the cacophony of youth. At twenty, the death of the woman in the road, time stood still for almost a year. My life and a desire for death were constant companions. Yet, in the end, it was her death that created the life I now lead. It spurred me to action and I made a drastic change that altered the course of my life—so much for the better.

The next twenty years, I made changes. I fell in love, got married, and then divorced. I found friends, made more, lost some, and grew closer with a few special people. My career grew. I made more money, lost money, got into debt, and made more money again. Money, unlike time, is largely a replenishing commodity. You could even say love is a replenishing asset, as well. In my experience, giving love away freely and unconditionally is often repaid in spades.

Time though? No, not time. Hitting forty a few months ago, a thought occurred: Statistically, I’m half-way through my life. It was a sobering realization. I’m not getting any more time. As these thoughts swirled and eddied amongst the outcroppings in my head, another thought popped up. That maybe, just maybe, I’m not at the half-way point of my life. I could be at the end. I may walk out the door tomorrow morning and a brain aneurysm takes my life like the snapping of a twig.

Sure, you could just chock this up to growing older and how mortality becomes more poignant and crisp as the hash marks on the prison wall of life grow in number. I’m sure almost everyone has a similar realization at some point in their lives. That everyone shares in this collective discovery does not make it any less profound.

The bear rises again, with more vigor and restlessness, grasping that time truly is finite. She notices more gray, notices the aches take a little longer to fade, the bags under her eyes grow darker. The fearlessness she once had as a twenty-something has eddied away to—to what? To the siren song of repetition and stability? To the tenuous mirage of a comfortable life? To the illusion that there is always more time to do what she desires? To see what she dreams? Each morning she awakes, knowing this could be her last and yet she still does nothing.

Constraint forces focus.

There is a way to make this whole visceral concept of time more real and concrete. It’s easy to get lost in the emotions and fear and, one thing my time as a programmer has taught me is that data helps. Hard numbers help.

Let’s do a thought experiment.

Statistically, I’m going to live until my mid-eighties (85.5, according to US Social Security office). One-third of our life is spent sleeping. And, there may or may not be a number of years that we’ll be hindered by just the mechanics of being older; our hips may fail, dementia might settle in, cancer may take away our remaining time here on earth.

Given that I have ageAtDeath - currentAge = n years left to live and that 0.33 * n = sleep will be used up by sleeping. Oh, and let’s not forget some variability, so (n - sleep) * (Math.random() * 20) = n (Why 20 as a random multiplier? Why not? This is just a thought experiment, remember?)

Just one simulation isn’t going to cut it though so let’s run 1,000. Wait, no, let’s run 5,000. Then we’ll take the mean of the results and we’ll get a number that might just shock my lumbering bear out of her self-imposed hibernation. Here, I made a little tool to scare me:

Now, these numbers may offer a grim outlook, and are likely horribly incorrect. What can I say? I prefer preparing for the worst; anything extra is a lovely surprise. Based on my numbers and running 5,000 scenarios, I average twenty years left of good health where I’m actually awake, twenty years of mobility and relative youth and ability to endure hardships on both my mind and body.

What do I do with this newfound knowledge?

Priorities shift, focus sharpens. I begin paring down to the important and worthwhile things. Figure out what I want the next twenty years to be, discovering where I want to be, what I want to see, who I want to become. I’m digging through the parched soil to find the water table of experiences.

I used to be so fearless. Hiking up fourteeners, snowboarding at 13,000 feet at A-Basin, mountain biking on the Continental Divide Trail, backpacking on the PCT, dancing to all hours, trying new things. Where did that woman go? Is this a mid-life crisis?

Time is limited. And willpower alone cannot change a person. Environment is where the change starts. Changing your environment destroys the comfort and repetition to force change. Packing your days full of new experiences—or even just varied experiences—creates more time; our life feels longer1. Discomfort breeds strength.

I don’t know what any of this means. I just know that I haven’t been too fulfilled these past few years and I’ve got twenty years to do something uncomfortable and different. I don’t want to be on my deathbed wishing I had done more. Hell, I don’t want to be sixty thinking, Well, if only I had got off my ass when I was forty and created a different life while I still had the time!

  1. Apparently, this can be accomplished by meditating as well↩︎