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Reframing Time to Uncover Your Identity

WHAT DAY IS IT?

I feel like I’m losing it. Not just because I’m approaching 50 years old, and that’s when we start to lose track of things. It’s happening to me daily and I feel as though I’m caught in a Netflix sci-fi drama. And I’m not the only one.

Time.

Hours, days, weeks, months, years. A blurry kaleidoscope of memories and aspirations, reflections, and predictions.

Many things seem to be happening at the same time. And yet, nothing is happening.

My days march on into oblivion. I wake up early, usually before 5 a.m. I love the pre-dawn light, the solitude of my surroundings, whether I’m inside the house, or walking the neighborhood along with a handful of chatty sparrows or a few skittish deer. By the time my kids have hit their third snooze alarm and my wife is getting ready for work, I’ve already meditated, conducted my daily workout, and have checked my inbox while listening to a podcast episode or two.

By 4 p.m., my body begins to wind down, and by 9 p.m., it’s hard for me to keep my eyes open. If you do the math, that means that I’m getting seven to eight hours of sleep, so I’m awake about the same number of hours as an average person, but the days feel like they take forever to pass.

I like to do my first-drafting early in the morning because that’s when I’m at my best. My decision-making abilities decline as the day goes on, and I find myself most motivated to get the words banked early so that the rest of the day feels like a win regardless of what else happens. But countless times, I’ve looked up after a writing session and noticed that it wasn’t even 10 a.m. yet. The older I get, the more the days seem to be dragging for me. It’s not that I’m not busy. Almost every minute of my day is spent working on one project or another. It’s my perception of time spent that is skewed. I feel like I’m working 45 hours a day.

And paradoxically, I’ve lost track of time in a different manner. I’m turning 50 next year. That number simply does not compute inside of my brain. When I look in the mirror, I still see myself as a young adult, a bright-eyed, twentysomething with an entire life that still needs unfolding. But my reality is that my second intermission just ended, and I’m heading into the third period. If you’re not a hockey fan, allow me to explain. Games are divided into three periods. I’m about to start playing the last one of my earthly career.

Unlike what I experience daily, my perception of extended periods zips by in a lightning flash. In my memory, 9/11 happened a year or two ago. Not twenty. When I remember what I did between classes at the University of Pittsburgh in 1989, I can still feel the cool, soft, plush grass on my back. Yes, I slept on the Cathedral of Learning lawn when I had a break in my classes. And sometimes instead of attending them.

The notion accelerates when I look at my children. How have 17 years passed since I carried my son’s infant carrier into our house in Nashville? How is it possible that the little girl I escorted to her first day of kindergarten starts high school soon?

Certain seasons in Cleveland, Ohio, take forever to end. I joke with my Southern friends, saying that we only have two seasons up here: Winter and not winter. It’s not unusual for snow to cover the grass in my backyard from late October until mid-April. Cleveland Heights isn’t Fairbanks, Alaska, or Siberia, but the long, cold winters aren’t enjoyable, and they feel like they last an eternity.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection between time and sleep. How is it possible that I can spend 7 or 8 hours in another place and time, and yet, when I open my eyes, it feels as though I’d just closed them? Roughly a third of our lives pass us by in a single instant.

Time is a bitch. And I’m not the only one who feels it.

WISER PEOPLE THAN ME WHO REFRAMED TIME

There’s no shortage of pithy quotes designed to help us reframe time.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Time is money.” This is probably the most efficient and elegant reframing of time that I’ve ever read. Franklin warns us about the dangers of opportunity costs by literally reframing money as time. And what we all eventually realize is that time is a much more precious resource than money.

One of the most influential and celebrated of the ancient Greeks was Pericles, who said, “Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Another brilliant reframing, this approach looks at time as a teacher. As he warned the Athenian generals, Pericles urges us not to be hasty with our decisions.

And in the wise words of the honorable Stephen King, as he wrote in The Green Mile, “Time takes it all, whether you want it to or not.” King reframes time as the ultimate thief, unstoppable and irreversible, which could exacerbate a sense of futility when it comes to dealing with time.

I’m a sucker for pithy quotes, but nothing I could find helped me to deal with the unsettling and uncomfortable feelings that I have about time, especially the older I get. Much like Neo in The Matrix, I’ve grown to sense that something is wrong, but I don’t what it is or how to articulate it.

DEEPENING THE CONVERSATION WITH DEEPAK CHOPRA

In Metahuman, the revered Deepak Chopra motivated me to start thinking about time in a different way.

We’ve all been born into assumptions about the nature of time.

“Once you accept the human construct of time unfolding in a straight line, it naturally follows that there is cause and effect. The big bang led to the creation of planet Earth after around 10 billion years, which in turn led to the creation of DNA, then human beings, then civilization, then New York City, then the birth of a new baby in a New York hospital at some hour this morning. The reverse cannot be true—the birth of a baby in New York City cannot lead to the big bang. That would defy cause and effect. This fail-safe is so convincing that we cannot easily accept its artificiality.”

Chopra continues with an analogy that explains why even raising questions about time is problematic.

“To give an analogy, once you learn to read at age six or seven, you cannot return to the state of illiteracy. Letters on a page cannot turn back into meaningless black marks. Likewise, once you and your brain have adapted to the rules of time, it would seem impossible to live as if time didn’t exist.”

According to Deepak, we can’t “unsee” the rules around time which we inherited from the world. And while the phrase, “time is relative,” might not mean much to you on the surface, consider just how relative it is. The time I spent sleeping is not the same as the time I spent first-drafting. When I’m involved in pleasurable tasks (such as reading a good book), time seems to move much faster than when I’m involved in unpleasant ones (such as doing my taxes).

Clocks don’t make time real. Human experience does. To accept this premise, Chopra believes you must reject the notion that space, matter, energy—and time—are fixed things.

This idea seemed ludicrous to me at first. Of course, these are fixed things. First Energy sends me my electrical bill every month. They’ve come up with a way of measuring energy and then they charge me accordingly. I can’t imagine telling customer service that I’m not paying my bill this month because Deepak Chopra says energy isn’t a fixed thing.

And time? How is time not a fixed thing? My entire world (and yours, too, whether you like it or not) runs on the set and measurable element of time. Many independent contractors and freelancers trade time for money—both of which are easily measured and converted into a billion transactions daily across the globe.

“Reification” as a fallacy is defined on Wikipedia as “…the error of treating something that is not concrete, such as an idea, as a concrete thing.” In other words, it is technically false to take something abstract and make it concrete—such as time.

Chopra argues that everything in our world is a process, not a thing. We’ve reified much of our existence because it’s easier for us to comprehend, even though it’s a fallacy. He explains that the body is a process and not a thing, as evidenced by the fact that broken bones heal—a constant process, even if it’s slow and unnoticed.

Time as we describe it doesn’t exist when we’re dreaming or when we’re asleep but not dreaming, and therefore, Chopra argues that time is tied to our state of consciousness.

“We take it for granted that one kind of time—the one measured by clocks—is real time, but that’s not true. All three relationships with time—waking, dreaming, and sleeping—are knowable only as personal experiences. Time doesn’t exist outside human awareness. There is no absolute clock time ‘out there’ in the universe…The now, the place where we all live, can be described as:

— the junction point where the timeless is converted into time

— the only “real” time we know in the waking state

— a totally unpredictable phenomenon

— a totally elusive phenomenon.”

Ugh. Apologies for breaking your brain but don’t blame me. Blame Deepak.

The longer I experience it, the more my traditional understanding of time seems to be breaking down, and yet, these new paradigms make my head hurt. I hate ignorance, so rather than trying to pretend I hadn’t been exposed to a new way of thinking about time, I chose to go deeper.

CARLO ROVELLI KNOWS THE ORDER OF TIME

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist. He is a founder of loop quantum gravity theory, a historian, and a philosopher. Rovelli is also a gifted writer, the author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and my new favorite book, The Order of Time.

Like many of us do, Rovelli went back to Aristotle in search of a definition of time.

“Aristotle is the first we are aware of to have asked himself the question ‘What is time?,’ and he came to the following conclusion: time is the measurement of change. Things change continually. We call ‘time’ the measurement, the counting of this change. Aristotle’s idea is sound: time is what we refer to when we ask ‘when?’ ‘After how much time will you return?’ means ‘When will you return?’ The answer to the question ‘when?’ refers to something that happens. ‘I’ll return in three days’ time’ means that between departure and return the sun will have completed three circuits in the sky. It’s as simple as that…So if nothing changes, if nothing moves, does time therefore cease to pass? Aristotle believed that it did. If nothing changes, time does not pass—because time is our way of situating ourselves in relation to the changing of things: the placing of ourselves in relation to the counting of days. Time is the measure of change: if nothing changes, there is no time.”

That definition of time worked for Aristotle and for the rest of humanity until Sir Isaac Newton had a different perspective.

Newton’s idea, that time is deduced through calculation and observation, is a scientific and mathematical approach that we’ve inherited for generations. As Rovelli so elegantly explains, Newton believed that time is uniform and independent of things. It can be measured and tracked. Sound familiar?

Aristotle and Sir Isaac were not in agreement. Aristotle believed that time to be the counting of change while Newton argued that time is independent of things, that time happens whether things change, or they don’t.

Here’s where things get interesting. While he states some issues with Aristotle’s position, Rovelli refutes our Newtonian perspective on time.

“We can think of the world as made up of things. Of substances. Of entities. Of something that is. Or we can think of it as made up of events. Of happenings. Of processes. Of something that occurs. Something that does not last, and that undergoes continual transformation, that is not permanent in time. The destruction of the notion of time in fundamental physics is the crumbling of the first of these two perspectives, not of the second. It is the realization of the ubiquity of impermanence, not of stasis in a motionless time.”

In other words, our existence is a collection of events, not things. “Things” have a limited duration while events persist in time. An example from The Order of Time is that of a stone.

At first glance, we’d all agree that a stone is a thing. Rocks are (probably) quite old. They seem hard, stable, even “eternal,” we might say. But that’s only because we’re not calibrating the observation based on our life cycle.

A stone is also a collection of events that happens to take place over millions or billions of years. Rocks haven’t always existed, and they won’t last into eternity. Every rock you have ever skipped across a lake will eventually grind to dust. Everything in our entire existence is a process, not a thing.

In much the same way, Rovelli explains that:

“A war is not a thing, it’s a sequence of events. A storm is not a thing, it’s a collection of occurrences. A cloud above a mountain is not a thing, it is the condensation of humidity in the air that the wind blows over the mountain. A wave is not a thing, it is a movement of water, and the water that forms it is always different. A family is not a thing, it is a collection of relations, occurrences, feelings. And a human being? Of course it’s not a thing; like the cloud above the mountain, it’s a complex process, where food, information, light, words, and so on enter and exit.”

I’ll spare you the physics lesson, but Rovelli claims that it is low entropy that powers the world, not energy. If you think about it, we know that energy isn’t created or destroyed, it only changes form, so logically, energy can’t power the world.

“A pile of wood, for example, lasts a long time if left alone. It is not in a state of maximum entropy, because the elements of which it is made, such as carbon and hydrogen, are combined in a very particular manner (‘ordered’) to give form to the wood. Entropy grows if these particular combinations are broken down. This is what happens when wood burns: its elements disengage from the particular structures that form wood and entropy increases sharply (fire being, in fact, a markedly irreversible process). But the wood does not start to burn on its own. It remains for a long time in a state of low entropy, until something opens a door that allows it to pass to a state of higher entropy. A pile of wood is in an unstable state, like a pack of cards, but until something comes along to make it do so, it does not collapse. This something might, for instance, be a match to light a flame. The flame is a process that opens a channel through which the wood can pass into a state of higher entropy.”

WHO ARE YOU?

The consequence of heading down this rabbit hole of time? I began to question who or what I am. If our world is a collection of events, not things, then how do I define myself? If I’m not this collection of skin, bones, hair, and organs, what am I? Who am I? Who are you?

Rovelli believes that we are events and happenings that are confined to limited time and space. He cites three ingredients that define our identity.

First, we all have a unique point of view. Through this point of view, we combine experiences and education into a package that promotes our survival. The second ingredient is how we organize and group the world, which makes it easier for us to interact with it. And lastly, what Rovelli labels as the most essential one—memory.

“We are not a collection of independent processes in successive moments. Every moment of our existence is linked by a peculiar triple thread to our past—the most recent and the most distant—by memory. Our present swarms with traces of our past. We are histories of ourselves, narratives.”

In other words, we are stories!

We incorporate our unique experiences into a personal history, our past. These experiences affect what we do in the present, and they orient us toward certain events in the future.

I have yet to convince myself that I’m not a collection of things. Intellectually, I know that everyone (mostly) has two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes, etc. I can see that many people have the same skin color or hair color as I do. Chimpanzees have 96% of the same DNA that we do. All of this irrefutable scientific evidence forces me to acknowledge that each of us is a collection of events, not things. As Tyler Durden so eloquently stated in Fight Club, “You are not your khakis.”

“A collection of events” is just another way of defining a story.

Here’s the thing: You’re an author. You create stories. It’s what you do. Don’t like the “story” of your life right now? Scrap it and start a new life draft. How? Reframing.

REFRAMING YOUR IDENTITY

Start by doing an honest self-assessment. What do you do on an average day? What time do you wake up? How do you wake up? What do you do first? Take that line of questioning all the way through your typical day. Don’t lie to yourself. When you’re done, take a step back and ask yourself what that collection of events says about you. What do you value? What matters to you? We do what’s important to us regardless of what we say is important.

But what if you can’t change? What if you believe that you’re stuck in that dead-end job with no hope of leaving? Reframe it. Yes, many jobs suck, but “suck” is in the eye of the beholder. For every person who hates writing, there’s someone like me who calls himself an author. For every person who can’t stand the sight of blood, someone is dedicating their life to open-heart surgery. For every person who doesn’t like children, someone is educating the youth of tomorrow.

If you’re legitimately stuck, you’re just going to have to dig deeper to reframe it. Does your employer offer part-time remote work possibilities? Can you transfer within the company to a different division? To a different city? Do you have the option of continuing education paid for by your employer?

Maybe your boss doesn’t offer any of these growth opportunities. Or perhaps you’ve never asked. Your job might suck less if you reframe it as an opportunity to start your next career while being paid by your current one.

Maybe you want to become a full-time writer. Again, reframe your perspective on the day job. Possibly that income is also financing your side hustle, which will eventually turn into a business.

All of this is predicated on your ability to change how you see, value, and use time. If you prefer to sit on the couch and binge Netflix, you are that collection of events. “Couch Potato” is the title of your story. If you’d rather drink yourself stupid than dust off that old manuscript in the top drawer, you are that collection of events. Change the events, change your story.

I’m just now beginning to deal with the consequences of this shift in how I see time. I’ve used this post as a way to maneuver myself through beliefs that won’t easily surrender, but I think it’s helping me to understand how time is tied to my identity. My identity is the story about myself that I both create and believe.

Carl Jung said, “You are what you do, not what you’ll say you’ll do.”

While I can’t control what happens to me while I’m dreaming or during deep sleep, I do have control over what I do daily while I’m awake. The way I use my time is directly correlated to the person I want to be. I’m inspired by someone like Nelson Mandela, a man who reframed his time in prison to become a beacon of inspiration for the world.

As I sit at my desk and begin to wrap up this essay, I’m again thinking about time. Andy Warhol once said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

If time feels like it’s slipping away from you, it’s time to reexamine the collection of events in your life because they ultimately define you.

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