2013-12-30

Time Warp

Moving forward through time, we experience a temporal illusion. It's a trick that affects the cognitive time-horizon in remarkable ways. It's my little Time Warp, in which the present plays itself out like an eternity, the future stretches forward as though it hardly moves at all, and the past is blink, most of which will never be remembered.

Part One:
I remember now with what hungry interest I began to watch the lives of other people--interest that I had never felt before! ...I could not understand, among other things, how all these people--with so much life in and before them--do not become rich-- and I don't understand it now. I remember being told of a poor wretch I once knew, who had died of hunger. I was almost beside myself with rage! I believe if I could have resuscitated him I would have done so for the sole purpose of murdering him! 
...Whose fault is it that they are all miserable, that they don't know how to live, though they have fifty or sixty years of life before them? Why did that fool allow himself to die of hunger with sixty years of unlived life before him? 
And everyone of them shows his rags, his toil-worn hands, and yells in his wrath: 'Here are we, working like cattle all our lives, and always as hungry as dogs, and there are others who do not work, and are fat and rich!' The eternal refrain! And side by side with them trots along some wretched fellow who has known better days, doing light porter's work from morn to night for a living, always blubbering and saying that 'his wife died because he had no money to buy medicine with,' and his children dying of cold and hunger, and his eldest daughter gone to the bad, and so on. Oh! I have no pity and no patience for these fools of people. Why can't they be Rothschilds? Whose fault is it that a man has not got millions of money like Rothschild? If he has life, all this must be in his power! Whose fault is it that he does not know how to live his life?
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

Part Two:

The ground was covered in snow, the wind was blowing from the east, the morning sun was shining brightly, and my stomach had butterflies that just wouldn't quit.

It was hard to warm-up in those conditions, especially since I had just spent the previous two hours in the back seat of my parents' 1992 Honda Accord. It was a long and dull voyage from Happy Valley, as many used to call it, to Cache Valley. At least, it was dull for a sixteen-year-old who would much rather have stayed home to play his guitar. I think I would relish the trip, these days. We spent about two hours traveling about 120 miles across the full length of civilized Utah.

For a child - even a teenager - two hours is a small eternity, but today time seems to pass so quickly that two hours are over before I have even had a chance to think about what to do with it. In fact, if I don't think about what to do with it, the moments pass right by me like the chilly Spring wind that morning. Each gust felt like a small, but unbearable, eternity in Hell at the time; but now, I couldn't account for a single one.

Part Three:
The race I ran that morning, the 3200m, must have began like so many others from that period of my life. I must have done my warming-up and stretching in a sweatshirt and a nylon track pants-and-jacket set. I must have shivered and blown on my hands to warm them up. I must have felt as though the race couldn't be over soon enough. I must have spent an hour or or so in a chilly purgatory before finally doffing everything except the minuscule portion of slick nylon cloth known as a racing singlet and running shorts. The frigid morning air would have hit my skin like a tidal wave of ice picks, and I would have walked up to the starting line, then started hopping up and down to keep myself warm and to look as though I was ready for the race. A man with a starting pistol would have called us up to the line, waited several seconds too long, and then started the race off with a literal bang!

Must have, would have... I put it to you this way because the truth is that I don't remember any of this. What I remember is the flash of a few fleeting mental images, and a great deal of experience tolerating similar conditions on multiple occasions.

What I do remember, and vividly so, is the large golden eagle pendant attached to a think gold chain as it bounced up and down behind the back of a fellow racer. I was positioned directly behind him, and I believe he wore the chain for good luck. If he kept the pendant in front of him, it would bounce against his sternum as he ran, causing excruciating pain. So, instead, he twisted his necklace around before each race, so that the pendant would bounce against his back.

I remember this so perfectly because that day, as I flexed my every muscle in the face of that terrible cold air and watched the golden eagle pendant bounce up and down, I discovered my little Time Warp.

Part Four:
After spending a couple of laps behind that bouncing golden pendant, I made the conscious decision to push myself harder, to run faster.

I might "hit the wall" early, I thought to myself, and expend all my energy before the race was through. But if I kept myself from slowing down too much, I'd better my time and set a new personal record for myself.

So I quickened my pace and left the golden eagle behind. True to my expectations, I felt my energy starting to wane after a couple more laps. As the pain of exhaustion started to wash over me and I felt a warm flush pass over my skin, my inner voice told me something that would change my life forever:
It's only for a few more laps. It will be over soon. You can rest when the race is over.
Really, I had nothing to lose. My energy was spent, anyway. The only difference between slowing down now and opting to keep moving was a little mental anguish as I pushed through the pain. In a split-second, I managed to talk myself into trying it. I didn't have time enough to grow skeptical of the idea. I was cold, tired, miserable, and in the middle of a two-mile race. If I wanted to argue with myself over this, I'd have to wait for the race to finish. I lowered my head and pushed through the pain, managing to increase my speed even a little bit more.

And then it was over. I remember turning around about twenty meters from the finish line, seeing my coach jumping up and down with a huge smile on his face as he informed me of my race time. It was a personal best, and a new school record.

But this is not a story about how I broke a record; it's a story about a Time Warp. See, I remember three things about that race: a bouncing golden eagle, my inner voice telling me that if I kept going it would be over soon, and the look on my coach's face as he came to congratulate me.

The whole experience - the two hour drive, the one hour warm-up, the ten minute race, lunch, and a two hour drive back home - didn't last longer than half a day. At the time, it felt like an eternity. Today, it's little more than three fleeting images. Logically, we understand that time simply is what it is. But, as we move through time and blend experience with perception, we enter a Time Warp in which a second first becomes a lifetime before ultimately becoming an immeasurably short flash of consciousness.

Part Five:
Here at the outset of the year 2014, with half my life ahead of me, it is tempting to take the day off and while it away. The sun is shining again, and it's cold again, just like it was that Spring morning so many years ago. Back then, I had the benefit of months of training behind me, so a small and simple decision to tolerate what I knew to be a fleeting moment of pain could translate into a memory that will likely last a lifetime.

But today, I'm a bit out-of-shape and I'll likely never really remember the effort I put in today. The anticipation of this afternoon's workout stretches out before my mind's eye like another small eternity. Nor is my inner voice on my side this afternoon, for it's telling me to start training for a half marathon on Wednesday.

Wednesday is New Year's Day, an obvious starting point, a logical day to turn over a new leaf. Even then, after staying up late to welcome in the new year, I could bargain with myself: It's the middle of the week - start training this Sunday. Sunday is, after all, an obvious starting point, a logical day to turn over a new leaf...

This time, a new sort of logic kicks in. I know from experience, thanks to the hypnotic bouncing of a golden eagle pendant, that any effort I expend while running today will be fleeting. What seems like an eternity today will become nothing more than a brief flash of consciousness in the future, if indeed it is long enough to remember at all.

So I pass through my little Time Warp, watching time slow to a standstill, then speed up again until it flows so quickly that it can no longer even be perceived. I use this to my advantage, knowing that pain is brief even though it seems lengthy, and that memories last a lifetime, even though they seem like milliseconds. The whole process distorts our perception, mangles the appearance of the cognitive time-horizon. But a savvy awareness of it makes it one more thing we can use to our advantage.