“You act like mortals in all that you fear,
and like immortals in all that you desire.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Alan Lightman, the physicist who brought us The Accidental Universe, has also written several works of fiction, including Einstein’s Dreams, presented as dreams Einstein might have had while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland in 1905. More philosophy than physics, the book is a collection of thought experiments about the concept of time. Each of the hypothetical scenarios is only a few pages long, but all provide food for thought. What if we knew when our time would end? What if there were no cause and effect to our actions? What if there was no past? No future? If we could freeze a moment in time, what moment would we choose? And, most critically, are we spending our finite allotment of time on this earth wisely?
In one of Einstein’s dreams, people live forever. In this world, the population is divided into the Nows and the Laters.
The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine…Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly…They are the owners of the cafés, the college professors, the doctors and nurses, the politicians, the people who rock their legs constantly whenever they sit down.
The Laters reason that there is no hurry to begin their classes at university, to learn a second language, to read Voltaire or Newton, to seek promotion in their jobs, to fall in love, to raise a family. For all these things, there is an infinite span of time. In endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes…The Laters sit in cafés sipping coffee and discussing the possibilities of life.
If you recognized yourself or the people in your life in these descriptions, it’s not surprising. People in this world of infinite time are strikingly familiar to us because we live our lives as if we are going to live forever. We bury our awareness of our mortality beneath our busyness or convince ourselves that there will be time to live the lives we want ‘later’. This is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, Seneca wrote:
What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.
Too Busy to Pay Attention to Life
The Now personalities, the perpetually-busy, rushers-through of life, can be spotted in several of Einstein’s Dreams. A dream where “one may choose his motion along the axis of time”, illustrates the consequences of moving too quickly.
The woman catches her breath. She is fifty years old. She lies on her bed, tries to remember her life, stares at a photograph of herself as a child, squatting on the beach with her mother and father.
In another world, time passes more slowly for people in motion, but the faster people travel, the less happy they seem to be.
Because when two people pass on the street, each person perceives the other in motion, just as a man in a train perceives the trees to fly by his window. Consequently, when two people pass on the street, each sees the other’s time flow more slowly. Each sees the other gaining time. This reciprocity is maddening. More maddening still, the faster one travels past a neighbor, the faster the neighbor appears to be traveling.
These words strike a chord in today’s hectic, always-connected, world where we race from one commitment to the next, using our electronic devices along the way to maximize our productivity. But, as Seneca observes in On the Shortness of Life, multi-tasking only takes us further from our ultimate goal.
…no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things…since the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.
We don’t slow down long enough to think. We're so focused on what's next that we rarely take the time to ask ourselves whether we’re living the life we want or if we’re even really present in the one we have.
Waiting for Life to Happen
Not everyone in Lightman’s tales is speeding through life. In one world, people get stuck in time.
In another house, a man sits alone at his table, laid out for two. Ten years ago, he sat here across from his father, was unable to say that he loved him…The man begins to eat, cannot eat, weeps uncontrollably. He never said that he loved him.
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.
In another of Einstein’s dreams, that will be painfully familiar to some, two couples are having dinner together, their conversation banal and meaningless.
For in this world, time does pass, but little happens. Just as little happens from year to year, little happens from month to month, day to day. If time and the passage of events are the same, then time moves barely at all…If a person holds no ambitions in this world, he suffers unknowingly. If a person holds ambitions, he suffers knowingly, but very slowly.
We can get stuck in the past, unable to let go of regret, or we can get stuck in a rut of routine, too uncertain of what the future might hold to risk chasing our dreams. Like the people in Dr. Seuss’s waiting place, we can end up ‘just waiting’…waiting for life to happen, passing our time in idle pursuits and telling ourselves that we’ll live the life we want when the mortgage is paid off or when the kids are grown or when we retire.
In On the Shortness of Life, Seneca writes:
How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live. What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!
Living a Life Less Short
Despite the title of his essay, Seneca argues that life is only as short as we choose to make it.
It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much…the life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.
In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer suggests one way we can stretch out time.
Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthy and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
This also helps explain why time seems to move faster as we age. The older we become, the fewer novel experiences we tend to have.
In Lightman’s fictional worlds, the people who find contentment are those who learn to live in the moment. Staying in the present is surprisingly difficult to achieve, but practicing meditation and mindfulness can help us get there more often, and the reward when we do so is well worth the effort.
In the final dream of the book, time is a nightingale, as fleeting and elusive as the present moment.
On those occasions when a nightingale is caught, the catchers delight in the moment now frozen. They savor the precise placement of family and friends, the facial expressions, the trapped happiness over a prize or a birth or romance, the captured smell of cinnamon or white double violets. The catchers delight in the moment so frozen but soon discover that the nightingale expires, its clear, flutelike song diminishes to silence, the trapped moment grows withered and without life.
Einstein’s Dreams and Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life (also available free online) are both very quick reads. Reflecting on what they have to say is time well spent.