David Segal: All the time in the world
My wife and I celebrated eight years of marriage last month. I think this is where I’m supposed to say it feels like it was just yesterday, but so much life has happened in those eight years. To name some: We lost a grandmother and a dear friend (one of my groomsmen), and we brought two children into the world. The passage of time expands and contracts under the forces of joy and loss. According to Albert Einstein, as reported by his secretary Helen Dukas in 1929, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” Give him a Nobel Prize for that insight.
The number eight came up again when I emailed a cousin to congratulate her on completing her master’s degree. I told her I hope we see each other again soon, before my son’s bar mitzvah in eight years! (He’s 5; we haven’t actually set a date yet.) The gap between having a 5-year-old and having a teenager feels unmeasurable, nearly unimaginable. But it’s the same eight years that my wife and I just marked from our wedding day. It’s very imaginable, finite, countable.
A friend who teaches at the college level bemoans his students’ abuse of the word “countless” to describe eminently countable things. I think I imagine the future like those sloppy students — as if it’s a countless string of days stretching off into infinity. But we can count it: Eight years until my son’s bar mitzvah and another five until high school graduation makes 13 years. That’s 13 summer vacations, 13 winter breaks, 13 birthdays.
It is not all the time in the world. (I don’t understand that expression anyway. Time isn’t “in” the world, is it? Isn’t it the other way around?) When I delude myself with thoughts of countless days ahead, I’ve forgotten the truth of mortality and the uncertainty of tomorrow. A vapid #YOLO attitude (“you only live once” in internet speak) doesn’t do it for me, either. Living each day as if it were your last is not compatible with planning for the future. But living like you’re completely in control is equally delusional. Man plans and God laughs, says the Yiddish proverb.
An obnoxious cousin of #YOLO is that pablum preached at parents of young children: “Cherish every moment because it goes by so fast!” Show me a parent who cherishes every moment and I’ll show you a liar. That’s not to say I don’t love being a parent, but it has its share of mind-numbing monotony and hair-thinning frustration. I set my sights on a more realistic goal: Cherish some moments.
Last weekend, my family of four went on a hike. It was easy, less than a mile of flat trail next to a rushing stream. Our 5-year-old walked the whole time; our 2-year-old napped in the hiking backpack when she tired of walking. The weather was perfect. We stopped a few times, for lunch and to play by a quiet part of the creek. My wife and I suppressed our gratuitous adult urges to “get moving.” We lingered. Time stretched out and I sank into it. For a moment, I was in the moment.
Time collapsed, too. Childhood memories of hikes with my parents floated by. Glimpses of our children’s future rustled in the aspen leaves. I saw them older, joining us for a more ambitious hike. I saw them as parents, sharing the world with their future children. I felt a little like Amy Adams in the film “Arrival,” experiencing the past and future simultaneously. Or like Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar” after he falls through the black hole into the quantum realm and witnesses decades of his daughter’s life in a matter of minutes. I swear I wasn’t high.
The point is, I cherished that moment. That said, I did not cherish the series of moments earlier that morning when my son mounted a fierce resistance to the hiking plan. There was whining and gnashing of teeth. As we predicted, he had a blast once we were on the trail. I’ll say this for kids: They know how to live in the moment. Planning for the future, not so much. That part of “adulting” stands in tension with living in the present.
The challenge is not simply to live like we’re dying. The task is to learn to live with two conflicting thoughts in front of mind: On one hand, this could be my last day on Earth; on the other hand, I better plan for tomorrow. It’s probably as easy as understanding Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Then again, maybe it’s not something to “get” so much as something to do.
At the end of “Star Trek: Generations,” Captain Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, says: “Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives. I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we’ve lived. After all, No.1 , we’re only mortal.” His first officer Will Riker replies, “Speak for yourself sir, I plan to live forever.” I aspire to Picard’s level of peace and equanimity. Most of the time, I live like Riker, seduced by the fake promise of countless days ahead.
There’s a different way to understand the expression “all the time in the world.” It’s not that anyone has an infinite expanse of moments for himself. Rather, each one’s finite time span exists in layered reality. My present is someone else’s future. My future is someone else’s past. “All the time in the world” is not something you can have, but it is something you can glimpse.
I don’t know if it’s possible to live with this heightened awareness all the time. If I find out otherwise, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll try to cherish a moment here and there.
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Being a good parent is arguably the most important job one might ever have but, unfortunately, babies don’t come with instructions or training manuals.