The Young Adult Section: The measure of time

Opinion by Nina M. Chung
Oct. 25, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

The Young Adult Section: The measure of timeWhether or not we like the numbers, time is exact. It coordinates global markets, unravels histories and guides social schedules. It predicts what people halfway around the globe are doing at any given moment and might be one of the smallest binders of the most people at once. Time keeps us on track with the world, so most of us get on track early on.

There is, however, yet another way we read time that is somehow both bigger and entirely personal. This kind of time is less quantifiable, more fleeting and highly subjective. We can feel it before we ever hear an audible alarm or chime. Actually, it has nothing to do with hours or minutes, but we feel it moving inexorably between us and the people around us. Like a form of physical distance, it can tell us precisely where we are. Perhaps more than change, the most powerful thing time can do is provide at least a moment of complete clarification.

A friend of mine emailed me in response to one of my columns last week, emergency-style: we had to talk — now! (If you know me, you know that I love when this happens.) He was recovering from a bad breakup, which had unexpectedly re-launched his religious faith and led to major re-acquainting with previously abandoned relations. To his own surprise, over the span of the week after my column, he found himself tying up numerous loose ends that for years had been drifting about via bad memories and awkward encounters. Yet just recently he had spent hours chatting with long-past friends and even an ex-girlfriend with whom he had once shared a very rocky record. What was happening? Was it simply that time heals? Was it that he and the other parties had changed and could now get along? No — it was that, after years of distance from past events, he saw himself with better eyes. He could return to people he had hurt and been hurt by because, suddenly, time was letting him see his past self with better perspective.

Our relationships with others depend first on how we relate with ourselves, but over time that latter part changes. Usually, it’s only ex post facto that we get the privilege of revisiting our past selves and all associated behavior. In the heat of the moment, we’re locked inside a melange of bias and furiously buzzing emotions. If we’re lucky, though, internal chatter subsides, and then we get the opportunity — though we don’t always take it — to see ourselves from the outside.

With our company, too, time’s penchant for clarity comes in extremely handy. It spotlights how we feel about someone in the context of how little or how much time has passed. Recall how ecstatic you felt when he/she finally called you (and you hadn’t realized how long you’d been waiting), how the hours you spent with someone seemed to fly by, how a short time away from someone seemed like forever. Emotions like these only make sense in the context of time.

When you’ve known someone for less than two years but it feels timeless, what does that say? When two people can reunite after months of separation and take it effortlessly in stride, what does that say? Our reactions to the passing of time could fill pages on how deeply and/or genuinely we regard someone. Maybe it’s more automatic for self-reflective people to register those mental notes, and maybe that’s why I’m putting it out here for the masses. After 21 years of meeting, greeting, mingling with and leaving people, it feels unimaginably wonderful to consciously recognize which relationships I can’t imagine ever fading; for now, at least, I can thank them for being so wonderful, too. (And I totally do, even though I guess that’s kind of weird or something.)

Sometimes only time can tell what things tarnish and what stays real. I believe that truth like that is immeasurably valuable.

Have an epiphany, or completely disagree? Either way, Nina would love to hear it. Take a moment to tell her, at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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