Time: A precious commodity

Thursday, September 12, 2013 - 10:27

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”
William Penn


When we average current male and female expected lifespans in the U.S, 78 years is roughly how long we can expect to live. That gives us 28,470 days, which on the face of it seems quite ample.

Even after we subtract sleeping time--about one-third of our existence--we’re still left with about 19,000 days to invent a perpetual motion machine, find a cure for cancer or write the Great American Novel.

If we spend about two hours per day commuting to work for a period of 30 years, we can subtract about 100 days.  After subtracting time eating, waiting in lines, paying bills, going to the doctor, attending PTA meetings, etc. we’re really left with about 18,000 days. It sounds better if we show it in hours: 432,000.

Time, as Albert Einstein would say, is an illusion. It is a human construct to help us regulate our lives, based on the periodicity of the earth’s rotation around the sun and moon’s rotation around the earth. While biological, geological and atomic time (half life of radioactive isotopes) are natural aging and transformational processes that can be physically measured -- our 24-hour day is built upon increments that we constructed.

The most exact measure of time can be found at the National Physical Laboratory in the U.K., where 70 cesium atomic clocks are housed. A cesium clock operates by exposing cesium atoms to microwaves until they vibrate at one of their resonant frequencies, and then counting the corresponding cycles as a measure of time. The frequency involved is that of the energy absorbed from the incident photons when they excite the outermost electron in a cesium atom to jump ("transition") from a lower to a higher orbit.

Cesium atomic clocks have a time-measurement accuracy of 2 nanoseconds per day, or one second in 1,400,000 years. They are the most accurate realization of a unit that mankind has yet achieved.

Yet those units are human creations, and they rule our lives.


Escaping from time: I have a friend on Kauai who is a Buddhist. Over the years she has learned to immerse herself in the “now” and not be very concerned about the passage of time. Since she doesn’t hold a regular 8 to 5 job, it’s much easier for her to do this.

On hikes she has ribbed me about breaking out of the present-- for talking about changing weather conditions, alternative routes, or actions we might take before the day is over.

I told her that on adventures in Alaska, if we don’t think about the future, the changing weather, difficult terrain up ahead, availability of water, etc., we could run into serious trouble.

But I understand where she is coming from-- the value of escaping from time and allowing ourselves to become enveloped in the “now.” In our scheduled lives, it’s something we don’t do enough. As children we have that innate ability.  But we lose it as we grow, learn about the world and launch ourselves into the world of work.

I read an interesting article recently on how we perceive time, which included some findings by a noted neuroscientist, David Eagleman. He mentioned that time passes more swiftly as we age because we are not learning as many new things as we did as children, and thus, our neurons are not nearly as active. The brain isn’t as busy processing as it once was. I always thought it was because I had fewer active neurons than when I was younger. Both could be true. I know my wife would certainly agree with the latter.

In our careers we have access to training courses on time management and generally how to make ourselves more efficient.  But seldom in life do we receive tutelage on how to make the most of our “nows,” those interludes when we’re away from work. That, I suppose, is something we have to develop on our own.

How enjoyable is a fishing trip, a family outing, or a bicycle ride if we’re constantly thinking about something that happened in the past, what we’re going to do when we get back to the house, or how we’re going to handle issues tomorrow? 

“Staying in the moment” is an important focusing skill to have on the job, especially from a safety standpoint. I think it’s no less important that we develop that ability off the job.

Mountaineering friends of mine seldom use George Mallory’s time-worn phrase “because it’s there” in response to why they climb. Categorically, they say it’s to “be in the moment.” They posit that the intensity of climbing and ‘being in the moment’ makes them feel truly alive.

Writer William Carlos Williams said: “time is a storm in which we are all lost.”

On its relentless march, time can become a ruthless beast if we allow it control us, rather than us controlling it.

Certainly, we could not function in the working world without schedules. But we can make the most of our personal time--about 9,000 days after we subtract sleeping and work--if we learn how to tune into the “now;” those fleeting moments that will never come again.

Those reading this have just used about four minutes of your precious time. I hope it was worthwhile.


Frank Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank, email frankedwardbaker@gmail.com

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