Last month, I answered some questions about my writing, one of which was “Why do I write what I do?” My answer focused on the “what.” In the weeks since, I’ve realized there’s a deeper reason for the “why.”
Back in the days when photography required developing, a chemical fixative would stop the development of the image and preserve or fix it.
Writing, for me, has always been a fixative for time.
I’ve felt since my twenties that time was accelerating. Sometimes I joke that the reason bills go unpaid or food spoils in the fridge is that I cannot accurately perceive the elapsed time since I paid last month’s bill or stashed the yogurt on the second shelf. Of course, this is merely a perception—albeit a powerful and disconcerting one.
Ron Friedman, writing about the time acceleration phenomenon for Fast Company, cited a plausible explanation (apart from biology) for this feeling. The Habituation Hypothesis rests on the idea that as we get older, more and more of our daily activities become reflexive. This habituation causes an inattention that leads to the feeling that life is an ever-accelerating merry-go-round of repeated activity.
I’ve been experiencing this more lately as I pause before bed to reflect on the day in my journal (yes, I still keep a hand-written journal). My changing journal entries embody, with distressing accuracy, the crux of the Habituation Hypothesis. When I was younger, I wrote page after page about new experiences, new people, new emotions. Now I find it difficult to come up with anything that differentiates one day from another. With rare exceptions, each day resembles the one before, if not in content, then at least in form.
Oddly, I enjoy this repetition at the same time that I find it distressing. I enjoy my daily rituals: making a pot of tea each morning, taking a late afternoon walk, and cooking dinner each evening while listening to the news and sipping a glass of wine.
The real revelation is not that time seems to accelerate as we age. Instead it’s that, as we get older, our ability to embrace opposing ideas and emotions expands. We can love our habits while at the same time feeling distressed by how they make life seem to fly by. We can recognize that embracing the new may serve as an antidote to the acceleration of time, as Friedman suggests, but that new experiences make us anxious. And we can feel compelled to fix the moments of our lives on paper while knowing this fixative is as fleeting as any electrochemical flash of memory in the brain.
In contemplating all of this—which is, inevitably, tied up with feelings about mortality—I return to one thing that seems to function as an all-purpose salve for both existential and visceral woes, something that any of us can practice, at any time.
Paying attention to what is happening in the current moment is an anti-fixative. The purpose of mindfulness is not to hold on but attend to what is before you and then to let it go. Paradoxically, this focused attention and letting go can turn habituated moments into magical ones, a jumbled rush of frantic activity into a captivating tableau, or an ebbing life into a series of savored moments.
More on the perception of time
* Thanks to Marcel Proust for lending the title of his seven-volume novel to this post. The title is usually translated as “Remembrance of Things Past” but a closer translation is “In Search of Lost Time.”