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The Time Trap

David Cowles

Dec 8, 2022

“The future is hurtling toward us at the speed of a runaway train…Now is the hour of our death…Memento Mori does not go nearly far enough. Try Vivo Mori instead.”

When do you begin to think about your life in terms of a lifespan? At age 5? Before that, you are aware of older people (e.g., grandparents) and you’ve been told that they will ‘die’ (whatever that means) long before you do. To you, however, that has no significance because, for you, there is no continuity between a person who is 5 years old (you) and a person who is 80 years old (grandparents).


Adults are a different life form, a different species. Like dogs in a park, kids immediately recognize other kids, even if there is a significant age difference, and they instinctively gravitate away from any adults and toward those kids.


Sometime during your 5th or 6th year, however, you’re likely to begin to grasp that ‘old folks’ are actually just like you, only projected forward in time. Sobering! Or is it? I’m 5. I have lived 5 years – that’s a long time. I don’t even remember when I was a baby, but I’ve seen pictures. I guess that looks like me.


I have lived one lifetime (5 years) so far…and it hasn’t been easy. My octogenarian grandparents are 16 lifetimes old by my count, 15 lifetimes more than me (one lifetime = 5 years from the perspective of a 5-year-old). My first 5 years were a bit of a schlog, and now I’m destined to repeat that 15 times? Functionally, that’s ‘forever’; death is not a material factor in my life at age 5.


But now I’m 10, twice as old. No matter how old I get, I will always have lived just one lifetime. Now an 80-year-old has lived only 8 lifetimes (vs. 16), 7 more than me. Still death is remote…but a little less remote than before. Now I’m 20 with just three ‘lifetimes’ left to burn. Then 40 with just one lifetime (40 years) ahead. This sh*t is gettin’ real! I’m crossing into ‘negative territory’ now: 1 (first 40 years) + 1 (last 40 years) = 0 (aka death).


15, 7, 3, 1. It gets real, real quick! But even this is not what I mean by the ‘time trap’. When I get to age 40, and half my life is behind me, it still doesn’t feel that way to me. At 40, I’m not even close to thinking I’m ‘half-baked’. I ‘know’ it, but I certainly don’t feel it. How come?


It turns out that we are born looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. The road ahead is 15, 7, 3 or 1 lifetimes long, but that feels like 30, 14, 6 or 2 lifetimes. Then, more or less suddenly, everything changes! Somewhere along the way, at the age of 60 or 65 or 70+, we realize that we’ve all along been looking at time through a concave lens. Belatedly, we turn the telescope around. What felt like 30, 14, 5 and 2 should have felt like 7.5, 3.5, 1.5 and 0.5. Time is not a kid hanging on a corner, reluctant to go home.


Time is not lingering somewhere out there on the horizon, as we had supposed; rather time (aka the future) is hurtling toward us at the speed of a runaway train. Objectively, at age 40, I had a whole lifetime ahead of me. Subjectively, I had 2 lifetimes. Experientially, I had just ½ a lifetime left. I’m 40 years old and, experientially, my life is already 2/3rds over. Objectively, my life expectancy is 80 years; subjectively, it’s 120 years; experientially, it’s just 60!


Like H₂0 in a freezer, time is subject to phase change. In one phase, we experience time as through the medium of a concave lens; in the other phase, the focus reverses and the concave becomes convex. The Ave Maria makes sense: “now and at the hour of our death.” Now is the hour of our death! We are all always living in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23), at the hour of our death (Ave Maria). Memento Mori does not go nearly far enough. Try Vivo Mori instead.

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