Certain songs brilliantly conjure up a feeling of nostalgia for vast groups of people. Bryan Adams’ Summer of ’69 is one — the Baby Boomers were around 18-23 years old then, and we know that what happens during those years tends to imprint on the mind profoundly, because that is when people are figuring out their identities. He sings “That summer seemed to last forever. And if I had the choice. Yeah, I’d always wanna be there. Those were the best days of my life.”
This idea of a summer seeming to last forever is one I’ve been pondering lately (if less the nostalgia. I am happier with my life now than I was at age 18. Writing for a living definitely beats working at Osco Drug Store in a Mishawaka, Indiana mall!). People often lament a sense that time is speeding up. Not all time hurtles by. The minutes spent stuck in a traffic jam seem to plod along. The question is whether it is possible to make the good moments pass as slowly as the tedious (or awful) ones.
The basic answer is “no.” It is the human condition that, precious as those good moments are, they will always disappear into the past before we wish them to. But as I have been researching this for an essay I am writing this week, I’ve found a few strategies that at least help with making time seem more expansive.
The first strategy is novelty. Remember how the first days of summer camp seemed to pass more slowly than the last? In new situations, the brain is laying down more tracks as it picks up new details. This is partly why time seems to go slower for a child than an adult. To a child, much is still novel. Adults build comfortable routines where little changes. So the brain goes into low-power mode. But anything new can change this: new commutes, new projects, meeting new people, doing new things with old friends.
The second strategy is depth. It is a cliche that a car crash passes in slow motion, but it’s also true. Anything risky or scary (or adventurous, to use a positive word) expands time. The example I often use for people is that the 14 minutes I spent on stage in front of the full Cadillac Theater for my Chicago Ideas Week talk is the same length of time it takes me to make and eat breakfast most mornings. Guess which seems bigger. The former was one of my defining experiences of 2015. Breakfast, not so much.
There is also something to be said for refusing to adopt time-passing strategies. Channel surfing will make the time go by faster than sitting out on the porch on a weekend afternoon looking at the clouds. But do you really want that time to go by faster? I have been trying to avoid looking at my phone in situations like sitting on the sidelines during baseball practice. A lovely summer day (when I only have one kid with me!) does not need to be sped up. Nothing needs to be read. Headline surfing is about filling time that may be best not filled.
Finally, the remembering self is more pliable than we often think. I have looked through the photo album I made of my honeymoon many times. The pictures have become my memories. If I put some of the photos out of order? Well, that would be the way the story would go now. But the broader point is that telling the story can cement it, and hence expand it, in one’s mind. I remember a lot about the past 14 months, partly because I recorded how I spent my time. It did not really race by. Or maybe that’s because I had a lot of slow moments at 3 A.M. when I was up with a kid who doesn’t sleep well. In either case, though, it does slow time down.
Do you have any strategies for slowing time (well, the good time) down?