Time Makes Me Anxious: How Einstein’s Dreams Helped
Why is it that only when I’m doing nothing does it feel like I have plenty of time to do everything? When I take a day off (a full day, I mean, when I don’t have a single thing on my to-do list), I’m always newly-surprised at how nice and long a day can feel — a welcome relief from my time anxiety, which is my near constant fear that time is running out on me.
Is it because I’m not watching the clock to log my time, rush my time, curse the limitations of time? Is it because I’m not lost in the timeless world of writing, shocked to look at the clock and realize 3 hours have passed? Is it because I have no deadlines for the day, allowing me to get a sense of what the passage of time really feels like?
Maybe it’s all of these things.
Or maybe it’s none.
Maybe the way time really feels is the way I experience it on the days when I am working. What I’d rather believe, though, is that the way time really feels (i.e., the right way) is the long, slow way (when I take a day off) because my time anxiety lifts and that’s the way time feels good.
Looking at time anxiety through Einstein’s Dreams
For the past few weeks, my fiance, Andy, and I have been taking turns reading aloud from a couple of books before morning meditation – me from The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and Andy from Alan Lightman’s novel, Einstein’s Dreams.
I’m having trouble succinctly describing Einstein’s Dreams to you, so I’m just going to be done with it and piece together a couple of quotes off the book jacket:
“What were [Albert Einstein’s] dreams like those last pivotal few months [when he was finishing] his special theory of relativity?” This book is a collection of those imagined worlds – “visions that gently probe the essence of time.”
It’s from this book that I’ve pulled the excerpts below — pieces of imagined worlds in which time looks and feels the same way always, and for everyone. Reimagining time in these alternative worlds helped relieve some of my time anxiety. Maybe it will for you, too.
What if we couldn’t obsess over what happened yesterday because we have no memory of the past?
The past exists only in books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life…. Without his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost.1
I could toss my Book of Life in the trash and never again have to obsess over the regrettable way I’ve wasted so much time in my life. But that would also mean tossing out every memory of the time I took full advantage of. Time anxiety tells me I haven’t done enough with my life, but this world reminds me there are things I’ve done right and would hate to forget.
What if all we could do is obsess about the past because it’s all we know?
The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.2
My anxiety sticks me there all the time – alone, daring not to bring anyone else into such a hellish existence. It would be embarrassing, for one, to share with people the inner workings of my wasted, messed up life. But also it would give people an opportunity to pull me out of it.
Because as much as I hate reliving a painful moment over and over again, it doesn’t always feel right just letting it go. Somehow I’m convinced if I stay there long enough, I can change some regrettable choice, be it time squandered or a relationship soured. If I study it long enough, I can realize it wasn’t that bad. If I reimagine a conversation just right, I can correct some shameful mistake.
This world reminds me I’m never stuck in the regrets of my past forever. For that I am grateful. It lasts as long as it lasts, then I’m back in the present (i.e., home).
What if we lived in a world with no tomorrow?
Each parting of friends is a death. In a world without future, each loneliness is final. In a world without future, each laugh is the last laugh. In a world without future, beyond the present lies nothingness, and people cling to the present as though hanging from a cliff.3
In a world with no concept of future, I would have no opportunity to correct my mistakes — to do more tomorrow to make up for the time I wasted today. There would be no anxiety-inducing to-do’s to dread about tomorrow, but there would be plenty of lost opportunity to mourn instead.
Living free of past and future doesn’t mean living free of pain
Even if I wanted to live in worlds with no past or future, it wouldn’t prevent what my anxiety fears the most: pain.
Present moment awareness may be the surest way around time anxiety about the past or future. But what I’m coming to realize is that I can be in the present moment and still be plenty uncomfortable (which, by the way, need not mean I’m doing it wrong).
Yes, I can be fully immersed in meditation and have no sense of time at all – a euphoria, of sorts, when it feels like time is standing still. Like I’m in limbo, given a pass to live without living. In those kinds of meditation sessions, 30 minutes can pass in what feels like 5.
Then there are the times when I’m in the present moment and it feels like shit. I’m uncomfortable, I’m tired, I’m sick. In those kinds of meditation sessions, 30 minutes feels like 2 hours.
It doesn’t really, though. It just feels like an experience I’m hating and, thus, one that’s never ending. I can’t really put a timestamp on that.
The same goes for when it’s a meditation experience I’m loving. It doesn’t feel fast. It just feels good.
What relief from time anxiety boils down to for me is acceptance – accepting when it feels good, accepting when it feels bad, and avoiding such good and bad judgments at all.