Friday, October 07, 2005

FREEFALLING

Pop the top and rip the cord. This is going to require some abstract thought on your part, so if you’ve got access to mind-altering drugs, now would be a good time to take them.

Children are taught that we (the people) have 5 senses: sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. But if you really think about it, there are far more than just 5 sensory interactions we use to negotiate our way through the world. Indeed, if you’re sitting down right now you’re taking advantage of a little something called gravity. That’s a sense you don’t fully appreciate until you try taking a leak on the space shuttle. (Please don't try to argue for the merits of a weightless golden shower)

And what about a sense of temperature? If you step outside in the middle of winter without a coat, you’ll freeze your ass off. Even if there’s no wind, rain, or snow – your body will sense the external temperature. Likewise, you don’t have to touch anything on an August afternoon to know it is hot outside – you have only to open your window.

Here’s another one. Suck down about three G&T’s in a half hour, then get up to use the bathroom. You’ll need to use both your hands as reference points or you’ll wipe out. That’s due to an impaired sense of balance. This sense becomes even more important when a uniformed officer asks you to take a walk on the shoulder of the road. But enough about my childhood.

Do you ever get hungry or thirsty? Those are also senses.

Have you ever missed someone so much it hurt? That’s a sense of loss. Loss sucks. Just ask the Green Bay Packers.

And when you laugh aloud at something I’ve written…well, we have a name for that one too – it’s called a sense of humor. Most people have one.

Sometimes we feel a heightened sense of awareness, a sense of obligation, or a sense that something is wrong. And when something is assumed to be understood by everyone, we call that “common sense,” even if common sense isn’t so common anymore. The point here is that there are far more than 5 senses. There are actually dozens of them, even if we only widely recognize and appreciate a few. Today I’d like to talk a little bit about one of them in particular.

Find a watch or a clock with a second hand (if you can!). When the second hand hits 12, close your eyes and, WITHOUT COUNTING, try to guess when one minute has passed. Most people are pretty good at this, guessing within 5 seconds on either side. This, as you might imagine, gets harder when you extend the length of time. Try to guess when 10 minutes have passed (if you don't go insane waiting, you’ll probably end up guessing early). Your ability to estimate the amount of time that has passed is a sense. It is the sense of time.

Some cultures in remote parts of the world don’t have the word “when” in their lexicon. To them, the development of a sense of time isn’t as critical to survival as it is in the “civilized” world, where our daily coming and goings are synchronized on a massive scale. In the States, it has often been noted that the pace of life is in different in different regions of the country. There’s the fast-paced east coast, the easy-going Midwest, and the lackadaisical west coast. This difference is also implied in the expression that there’s something very different about a “New York Minute” than a minute anywhere else. From all of this I think it is safe to say our sense of time is influenced in large part by the pace of the communities in which we live. That’s why some people from fast-paced environments have a hard time slowing down enough to relax on vacation. A new Yorker's heightened sensitivity to the passing of time can make a Honolulu minute seem like an hour. A very comfortable hour...but a LONG, SLOW one.

Personally, I feel like my days drag on slowly, while my weeks and months are flying by. Do you ever feel like your weeks and months are flying by? Do you ever look at the calendar and think, “Holy shit, it’s 2005??” Do you ever say, “Where has all the time gone?” This happens more and more the older I get. That’s because time speeds up as we age. When you are 6 years old, 6 months is 1/12th of your entire life, or roughly 5 minutes on a clock. When you are 15 years old, that same 6 months is 1/30th of your life, or roughly 2 minutes on a clock. And when you are 60 years old, 6 months is just 1/120th of your life, or roughly 30 seconds! Life speeds up: The difference in how 6 months feels to someone who is 6 versus someone who is 60 is the difference between 6 minutes and 30 seconds. Pretty big difference.

This is how my good friend Mary Jane described it to me one night. Feel free to take notes – there may be a quiz later.

Imagine a hole in the ground – not a little chipmunk hole, but a hole the size of a Mini Cooper. Now imagine you’re out frolicking in a dewy meadow, naked of course, without a care in the world, when you blindly prance over this hole. Suddenly, and without warning, a girl named Gravity grabs you by the ankles and pulls you in. You can’t see Gravity, and you never spent a whole lot of time thinking about her, but she’s suddenly become the most powerful and frightening force you’ve ever encountered. That’s because you’re falling at her mercy – and fast!

In a panic, you take an inventory of your situation. This is definitely not an ordinary hole. It’s WIDE and DEEP – you can’t touch the sides and you can’t see the bottom. But like Alice down the rabbit hole, you’ve got the wherewithal to realize that you’re definitely falling. It’s more than little unsettling at first because, in your experience, falls from even modest heights do not end well. But it’s all out of your hands now – your fate rests precariously in the hands of Gravity.

Eventually you start to settle down – after it occurs to you that you’ve been falling for a while. Minutes perhaps. And where it had been dark, your eyes begin adjusting. After awhile you start to get used to the sensation of falling. When you get tired, you fall sleep. When you get hungry, you start reaching out and taking food out of the void. You see there are other people falling all around you, so you talk to them. It’s not easy at first, but you begin to form relationships with all of these falling people. Then you get bored and adventurous, exploring the limits of this mysterious hole. Life goes on.

You go on to live out your entire life falling in that hole. And the entire time, in the back of your head, there’s this nagging concern that at any moment you could hit rock bottom. You don’t know when because you can’t see the bottom, but you know there’s a bottom down there somewhere. Or at least that’s what you assume. You try not to dwell on it, focusing instead on your immediate surroundings. But sometimes you can’t help but wonder – just how deep is this hole and when am I going to hit bottom?

Of course, something like this could never happen in the real world. There are rules here. When gravity pulls, it means there’s a relatively close object of significant mass on the other end – like the planet Earth.

But imagine for a second that instead of gravity, time grabbed you by the ankles and gave you a tug. Perhaps you’ve never thought of time as a force before, but it’s a force all right. Think about it. Like gravity, time is pulling you deeper and deeper into the unknown. You are essentially plummeting into the future, out of control and unable to stop, your fate precariously in the hands of time. You don’t feel like you’re in a freefall, but that’s only because you’re used to it. You weren’t always used to it, though. There was a time when time was dead to you. A time when you yourself were barely alive…

The womb is essentially timeless. At birth, we are literally pushed into the great hole of time. At first there isn’t a whole lot to like about our new surroundings. They’re new and unfamiliar, so we cry a lot. But eventually we settle down. And where it had been dark, our eyes begin adjusting. After awhile we get used to the sensation of falling through time. When we get tired, we sleep. When we get hungry, we eat. We take notice of other people all around us and begin to form relationships with them. Some of us get bored and adventurous, exploring the limits of our world through recreation or pharmacy. Others obsess about the bottom. Like the example above, time is definitely not an ordinary hole. It’s wide and DEEP – we can’t touch the sides and we can’t see the bottom. But like Alice down the rabbit hole, we’ve been blessed and/or cursed with the wherewithal to realize that we’re definitely falling into it.

Stop and feel yourself falling forward in time. You can't stop. Every second you live passes by, never to be passed again. The sentence you just read is now forever a part of your unalterable past. You can't change it. Nor can you change the fact that you just read the word "word" - possibly twice. No, that's not deja vu. Are you staying with me here? If not, go back and start this paragraph over.

So we’re falling right now – you and me. Falling forward into a bottomless future. We don’t know what’s at the end, or when we will meet that end. But we do know that there is one. Or do we?

A lot more people suffer from anxiety these days than ever before in history. At least that's what all the pharmaceutical lobbies tell the folks in Washington. Anxiety is another sense. For many, it’s the sense that time is running out. The fear of an uncertain future. Many therapies teach that we should slow down, breathe, and take a look around us. We need to focus on the now instead of the then and the when – the unalterable yesterday and the unforeseeable tomorrow. It’s akin to telling someone with a fear of heights not to look down, because looking down doesn't change anything - it only creates more fear. The same is true of looking forward in time. If you’re afraid of something, dwelling on it won’t change it. It will only create more anxiety. It is better to focus on the things around you in this moment. These are the things you CAN change.

I find people are good for that. Being around people calms me because my attention is diverted from the future to the present. Drifting powerless in the abyss of time, I look at all of the people falling alongside of me. My friends, my family, my acquaintances – readers who think to e-mail me well wishes and provide fun links to pass along. We all share the bond of time. It’s good to see that I’m not alone out here. Falling forward faster and faster and faster. All the time wondering – just how deep is this hole and when am I going to hit bottom?

My overdeveloped sense of time tells me I have taken up too much of yours with this heady thought exercise, so I will conclude with a final note on something dear to me: beer.

Beer is a parachute. If you feel like you are falling through time too fast, simply slam back a few cold ones and everything will suddenly slow down. You’ll stop worrying about the bottom and start enjoying the company of the folks in freefall all around you. An open parachute mitigates the fear and anxiety. So the next time you’re feeling a little anxious, pop the top and pull the cord. Let beer be your parachute. Now - if you'll excuse me - the weekend has arrived and it's time for me to fly.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, have a good time all the time. And why not?

1 comment:

Roy said...

That surprisingly made a lot of sense. (oops, another sense). Sometimes I would love to take a break from this freefall in time and sit on solid ground for a change. What time is it in deep space, away from the suns gravitational forces and away from the influences of planetary spin? Our internal clocks are an amazing piece of work. Approximately one beat of our hearts per one second of our time. Coincidence? Or intelligent design?

I SEE YOU!