Time, in proper context

`A New Chart of History’, published by Joseph Priestley in 1769, detailing the various events that happened and civilizations which existed across the known world.

Time is a difficult concept to define precisely in words; if I ever met a being who doesn’t have the intuitive understanding of it, I can’t fathom a way to explain what time is (even if that being understood my language). This doesn’t matter though, we don’t know of a being whom we can interact with that doesn’t understand the concept intuitively. As humans, we see things move around us, listen to the changing frequencies of sound when someone talks, jump from thought to thought in our brains and know that time is passing. The passage of time can be measured with extreme precision and we have the universally accepted unit of the second to describe how much time has passed between two events.

While the duration second has objectively been the same (more or less) for hundreds of years, the importance we attach to that duration of time, subjectively, has always been changing. In the 19th century, we didn’t have timekeeping instruments that wouldn’t deviate by many seconds every day from the correct time. It took 4 days for the news of English victory in the Battle of Waterloo, fought in 1815, to cross the English Channel and reach London. I would assume that people of 19th century perceived time to pass quickly — a second was so short a duration that if you used seconds to describe an interval of time, you were probably a scientist or a clock maker. Modern atomic clocks are accurate to 1 in 1,000,000,000 parts of a second per day. It would take this clock almost 32 years before it starts to lose (or be ahead by) one second. News of events travels across the world in seconds. Japanese train operators issue apologies if a train takes off 20 seconds early. We use seconds as a unit of time interval every day — to describe how long to keep our food in the microwave, or the length of the animated GIF we are watching. I have no need to assume; I know that for most of us, every second counts in whatever we do.

All this progress has also rewired our brains to think that tasks shouldn’t take too long to complete. An email attachment should download within a few seconds, our food delivery should arrive in 30 minutes, and our Amazon order should arrive in a day. But what about tasks which are less precisely defined — for crime rates in a city to reduce, for healthcare to become affordable and widely available, or unemployment rate to go down? On the personal side, how much time should we afford to build a relationship with another, or to learn a new skill? Is one OkCupid date enough to decide you dislike someone, or is 24 hours enough to learn to code? Or is it acceptable call your leader a failure if an additional hundred thousand jobs are not created within their first year at the office? Are the Wall Street investors right to sell off their shares when a company falters for two quarters? Our demand for immediate change is re-shaping behavior everywhere. At most of our workplaces, projects which will provide returns quicker are prioritized higher, usually leading to a path on which companies fail to grow. We don’t give time for our relationships to heal if anything goes wrong, leading to anguish and break-up. We elect leaders who promise immediate change, leading to the replacement of sound policy making with political stunts.

Earth is estimated to be 4.7 Billion years old. It is estimated that first life is formed in about 800–900 Million years after that. It was another 3.8–3.9 billion years before first humans are expected to have walked on this planet. Wait, don’t both the above two intervals add up to the Earth’s age itself? That’s right. Humans have existed for only 0.004% of the time between now and when Earth was formed in the cosmos, arriving about 200,000 years ago. Barely a blip on the radar. If our species survive for another 200,000 years before going extinct (hypothetically of course — 200,000 years is a long time in to the future to make predictions), and another intelligent species arrives on Earth in a million years, they would have a hard time counting our existence as one of the important events in Earth’s history. It is difficult for me to square this understanding with the assumption that we as humans always make — that we are the master species controlling the planet. And it seems quite foolish to assume that you or I can expect a long lasting change to happen in our lifetimes, long lasting enough for it to be mentioned whenever the history of the human species is being written.

It is important for us to give time for change to happen, and stop assigning deadlines to tasks before which we must complete it. Be the person who is never in a hurry, one who gives time to the people and work that is important. Don’t give in to immediate gratification, but invest your time and money into long lasting efforts. Above all, be patient.

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