There’s this concept in physics called “entropy,” which is essentially a measure of the overall messiness of a thermodynamic system, and there’s a fairly important physical law that states that the entropy of a given system can never decrease. Which is weird, because it’s one of the (very) few things in all of physics that requires a particular direction for how time can move. When I first heard about this, I couldn’t believe it — entropy, the slow increase in chaos, the reason that eggs will never spontaneously reform themselves after breaking, will always increase, and this very fact sets time marching forward, inexorably.
I’m 35 years old. I have a job in the sciences that is really rewarding, if not really the exact job that I’ll want to have forever, but it’s exciting and important right now. I got married last year to someone who is perfect for me (we even had a reading from one of your columns at our wedding!), and we just got a cat who is nervous and sweet and doesn’t want to be held. I have really good friends, and I volunteer, and I talk openly and honestly about my feelings and I cook and clean and exercise. I am 35 and I am happy, I think. But, see, throughout all of this, I can’t help but think about how time slowly eats up the life that I have, turning the raw, beautiful potential of the future into the hollow sadness of memories in the past, forced through a focal point of the present that is gone too quickly. I am haunted by entropy even as I am in what I think might be the best years of my entire life.
I think, growing up, we’re taught that the most important thing is to cherish life, cherish being young and vibrant and active, cherish the time you have, cherish the people around you. And I took this to heart and spend a lot of time being present in any given moment, thinking about how wonderful it is to have this. It’s sometimes annoying, I think, for my partner, and my friends, to always have me trying to remind them of just how special it is that we’re wherever we are, a quiet bar, or a back patio on a warm evening, or a friend’s house for brunch, or whatever, because they can tell in my voice that I am so terrified that this is going to end at some point and it’ll just be a memory. Being told that life is precious, and that all I can do is work hard and love deeply in the time that I have, has made me realize that time is a quiet thief.
It eats at me. Time goes too quickly, and we have the capacity to just waste it without thinking. I can be looking at my phone and suddenly it’s 3 p.m. and that was one afternoon I had and now I won’t have it ever again, it’s lost. The internet, and really the whole modern world, wants to constantly remind us that time is passing, a fact that’s making my heart beat fast even just writing this. I lie in bed, thinking about just how privileged I am, thinking about just how nice I have it that this is my current major worry, but also I am terrified that time keeps continuing, that I’m just getting older and older, and everyone is getting older and older, and that time is just marching us all into the ocean.
Is this just how it’s going to be, for the rest of my life? Is it possible to forget that time will take everything from us? How do you hold on to something precious if it’s just smoke?
Paralyzed in the Present
Dear Paralyzed in the Present,
“Time goes too quickly” is a belief system. Like all belief systems, the more you believe that it’s true, the more true it becomes. You encounter manifestations of this core belief everywhere. You take neutral events and information and sensations and treat it all as data that supports your central hypothesis. When you spend a few hours with friends, you’re determined to cherish the experience, but you annoy everyone with your frantic cherishing and your proclamations of each moment’s value. You spend a weekend away from home, and you lament how quickly it flew by. Instead of questioning the brevity of scheduled outings with friends (why don’t humans who get along spend full days together instead of two or three hours here and there?) or the absurdity of how few vacation days most Americans get every year (shouldn’t every weekend be a long weekend?), you go back to your guiding principle: Time moves too quickly.
You’re pretty sure that you can feel time moving too quickly, but in fact, you’re just thinking that. Your thoughts are structured by your belief system. Your thoughts form tight fences around your feelings. You say that you’re open and you feel your feelings (and I trust that you’re making an effort on that front!), but your thoughts are always elbowing in and fucking everything up by throwing your belief system — TIME MOVES TOO QUICKLY! — onto the table like a rotting fish, sometimes even when company is present.
You used the word “think” nine times in your letter, including the phrases “I am happy, I think” and “I can’t help but think” and “I lie in bed, thinking” and “Time goes too quickly, and we have the capacity to just waste it without thinking.” Not only do you believe that thinking is the key to cherishing the present more, but you also believe, at some level, that you might just be able to solve the problem of time. So even as you keep collecting data that supports your hypothesis that time moves too quickly, you’re also trying to figure out the math on HOW TO STOP IT.
This means that you spend the most enjoyable hours of your week like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, panicking as the sand slips through the hourglass, frantically imagining the return of the Wicked Witch. This is how human beings behave when they’re trained, from a young age, to think about feelings instead of actually feeling them. Thought has replaced feeling so thoroughly that we can’t tell them apart anymore.
Meanwhile, why the fuck doesn’t Dorothy herself do something, instead of just batting her gigantic, watery eyes at the goddamn sand in the hourglass? Couldn’t she look around for a Swiss Army knife, or jimmy the lock with a nail file, or fashion a rope ladder out of some witch robes and throw them out the window? Dorothy, like you, is a cat who is nervous and sweet and doesn’t want to be held. (But can you blame her? Auntie Em is a disordered control freak, custom-made to torture a little dreamer like Dorothy.)
You have a bad habit of thinking yourself in tight circles instead of feeling. Thinking — particularly that puzzle-solving type of thinking — speeds up time. (This is why I play Tetris on planes.) Feeling slows down time. This is known as Havrilesky’s Time-Feeling Theorem, and I would send you the formula for it, but I fear it’s far beyond your intellectual purview, so you might just have to take a leap of faith, which is another way to slow down time (See also: Van Halen’s Got My Back Against the Time Machine Theory of Faith-Based Hurdling).
But mostly what you’re battling right now is your age: 35 years old, the ideal moment to begin your first major existential crisis. In fact, I read the last line of your question — “Is this just how it’s going to be, for the rest of my life?” — out loud, to my husband, right before bed, and of course we laughed and laughed for a long time, and then I said I might just write back with one word, “YES,” and call it a day. Which probably sounds absurdly callous to those of you who still picture me getting a carefully pre-selected pile of letters from my diligent assistant and then somberly typing out wise responses at my pristine desk in my minimalist office. (“Here, take a little of my enormous strength, young dove!” I say to my flock, Jesus-like, before retiring to my meditation den for Reiki healing and chia-seed-paste smoothies with hemp boba.) But no. I am just your average tool who has slowly learned to accept that her time on this planet is limited.
Acceptance can look callous (or stoical, or numb) before you’ve accepted what you need to accept. As someone who’s currently caught in an exquisite spiderweb of fearful, anxious thoughts about rapidly growing older and then disappearing, you will tell yourself a story about how this soldier is a stoic, or that old lady is in denial, or this Buddhist isn’t feeling enough, or that advice lady is a merciless, crusty old dick. But really, some of these people have simply made peace with WHAT IS. Time, by definition, does not move too quickly. Time moves at exactly the pace it should move. To believe otherwise is to imagine, arrogantly, that you know better than “God,” or some other spiritual patriarch, or Mother Nature (who is verifiably vengeful and off her rocker, but I think we can surmise that she is, nonetheless, just a teensy bit smarter than you, silly mortal!).
I kid! The point is, time moves how it moves. Time is relative and subjective. (Think of Einstein, if that helps.) Time speeds up and slows down, depending on what’s happening, and depending on whether or not you’re struggling to corral your thoughts with your feelings, or you’re letting your feelings corral your thoughts. Personally, I try as hard as I can not to corral. I let my thoughts and feelings dance together. Sometimes my thoughts lead, and things get a little stompy and repetitive. Sometimes my feelings lead, and things get a little too wild. It’s a balance.
Speaking of which: After laughing heartily (or callously or smugly or with Zen-like serenity, depending on who’s watching), my husband and I talked about how funny it is that we’re already so fucking old and we’re just going to get older and older and older until we die. We talked about our many ailments, which will mostly only get worse from here. We talked about how scary and painful it gets when someone physically dies.
Naturally, that part of the conversation was lighthearted and fun, because entropy is something we’ve talked about a lot and have struggled very hard to accept (mostly, almost, so far, for now, kind of). But then my husband started to bring up other things that could happen, the kinds of things that I actively choose not to think about, ever, primarily because I cannot think of these things and continue to function. I am wired badly. These aren’t minor, everyday things, to be clear. They aren’t things I have any specific reason to fear, beyond being an animal with bad wiring. But I can’t even tiptoe up to these things or hint at them without my Catholic, superstitious, fearful animal self howling and scratching at the door to get out, go somewhere, anywhere else.
I most certainly cannot think of these things late at night. Or in the middle of the night. Or while I’m a little sick. No way.
The point is, when it comes to accepting hard, constant, unchanging truths — and once we’ve done that, moving on to higher-level equations, which always seem to include infinite terrifying variables! — we all have our hard limits. Our minds forever approach acceptance but never really reach it. Goddamn, I’m smart.
So this is what I’d suggest: Stare directly at the sand in the hourglass, and try to relax as you do it. Ask the question, “Is this just how it’s going to be, for the rest of my life?” and answer it, “Yes.” Do this repeatedly, but try to slowly bring in some other feelings: “I am here. This minute will last a long time. This moment is not rushing out of my grasp. Time moves at the speed it moves. There are mysteries in the world that I will never understand, no matter how hard I try, and that’s as it should be.” When you’re with other people, instead of saying “Look you guys, let’s cherish this! CHERISH THIS, GODDAMN IT!,” try to slow down and watch and listen instead. Practice putting your thoughts aside and breathing in the good moment. Watch someone’s lips as they speak. Notice your breathing. Each glorious minute can last an hour when you savor every tiny detail, like an artist, with your heart. Keep your scurrying, nervous-cat mind out of the picture. Tolerate being held until you actually want to be held.
If there is terror associated with time (like a fear of the unknown, a fear of death, other dark things that feel murky and overwhelming), you’ll want to examine some of the details of what that terror might be, but I also want to leave some room for sidestepping some of that terror as needed. Respect your limits. But try to take the FEELING door into this exercise. Notice when your thoughts bust in and trumpet your belief system (“Time moves too quickly!) and guide them out the door, and shut it. Hold your anxious cat, and pet it. Pet your goddamn cat, man, even as its eyes start to dilate (signaling attack!) and its head starts to twitch (oh, Christ, no!) and its rabbity feet start doing those sharp-clawed rabbity kicks designed to eviscerate your flesh. Squeeze the little motherfucker and pet the shit out of the motherfucker and BREATHE.
I have a friend who held her giant cat like a baby from the moment it was born. The cat eventually weighed maybe 40 pounds, enormous. Her cat would struggle to get away, but she would kiss his face and talk in a high voice about her baby. That cat was mean, but he was also the most loving animal in the universe. One night, I came home and cried (I was 25 years old and I came home and cried a lot) and the cat came into my room and pressed his face against my face and accepted belly rubs and then — I’m not kidding — ran his claws through my hair, combing it gently.
Memories are not sad and hollow. It makes me happy just thinking about that amazing cat, who was not my cat, and is dead now. I loved that dusty, hairball-filled apartment, with its gigantic windows, and I love that 25-year-old freak of a girl who cried every night on her giant bed (at least she had a big bed — smart move, girl!) and wrote the saddest songs on her guitar. Sadness is not hollow.
The future does not have endless raw, beautiful potential, either. Things could get worse suddenly instead of just slowly getting worse and worse. I know that’s triggering (it fucks me up, too! That’s my hard limit!) but an important part of reckoning with your late-30s and early-40s existential crises involves accepting that not everyone is living on the same exact timeline. We do our best to survive, is all. We are not guaranteed a certain number of years. We get what we get, and we don’t throw a fit.
Facing that is hard, but the more you do it (somewhat ironically), the less you panic about the here and now, and you start to FEEL the here and now instead. I know, because I felt like you do now a few years ago. I was panicked over how quickly the years were racing by. And I figured out that by breathing and connecting to the moment — not while meditating, just while walking or doing the dishes or writing — I could slow down the day. When you feel connected to yourself, and connected to others, that feeling stretches out the moment instead of condensing it, reducing it, diminishing it. And sometimes it can help to force yourself to consider how unpredictable and sad life can be. (Again, respect your wiring! Respect your limits! Embrace denial as needed! Take breaks!) It’s paradoxical, I know, but sometimes looking straight at the ugly truth will free you from your anxious, circling thoughts and allow you to live in a more relaxed, present way.
My husband said that I should tell you that once someone dies (both of his parents have been dead for over 20 years), you’ll feel differently about time. I told him, “That falls into the category of things that people often say, because they are very true, but they are not a gift to anyone else nonetheless.” But he does have a point: When you add up your remaining time on Earth (as you seem to do repeatedly), that’s some imaginary, unhelpful math. Because you don’t know how much time you’ll get. And strangely enough, converting that constant (the exact number of years you have left) into an unknown variable can feel relaxing. Similarly: Because you can’t make the sand STOP, trying to STOP THE SAND with your mind actually seems to speed it up. But watching the sand fall, and feeling it seems to slow it down: I am here, I am old, anything could happen, I do not own this cat, this cat will die, I do not own the future, I will die, I am sad, this world is not mine, I am a squatter, I am temporary, I own nothing and no one. When you accept the exact, unchangeable speed of time, time slows to a crawl.
You will not own what you think you will own. You will borrow it. That is raw and beautiful, right now. It’s not sad and hollow. This natural world is as it should be. (Footnote: It’s the motherfuckers who don’t believe in time at all, who can’t feel, who can’t stand to notice that they’re old and they’ll die someday, who fuck this planet the hardest. The natural world is being destroyed by people trying to STOP THE SAND with their money. That is beyond sad and hollow!)
See how many terrors will come up when you stare at the sand? It’s not for the faint of heart. But in the words of noted astrophysicist David Lee Roth:
I get up, and nothin’ gets me down
You got it tough, I’ve seen the toughest around
And I know, baby, just how you feel
You got to roll with the punches and get to what’s real
Roll with the punches. That really is all you can do. You’re a squatter, and this moment belongs to you, but just barely.
Don’t look at your memories and immediately say, “I can barely feel that! It’s hollow and empty, it doesn’t belong to me!” Try to connect with your past feelings, and the past will come alive for you. Don’t fixate on the future, making it seem more raw and beautiful and full of potential than the present. Live where you are.
Don’t let your thoughts poison your experience. Practice acceptance. Let the world in. You will be disappointed, often. Your cat will struggle free. You’ll stumble on something transcendent only to quote David Lee Roth seconds later. That’s how you were meant to live! That is perfection. You will honor whatever comes your way. It’s all precious and it’s all just smoke. It is all glorious and scary and sad and exactly as it should be. Train your eyes to recognize that. Train your heart to let it all in. Hug your anxious cat in spite of everything. Stare at the sand and welcome the witch.
All letters to firstname.lastname@example.org become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.