When I was a kid, time seemed infinite. In those dreamlike years before junior high’s end-of-innocence reckoning, summer breaks were an annual stint of freedom: three full months of 70s-era-childhood, running free range in a small town. Meanwhile, each elementary school year endured eternally; graduation to the next grade was a personal evolution.
I had no concept of the finite back then. Time was a vast ocean. I floated, buoyed and boundless. I recognize a similar mental paradigm in my own kids’ assessment of time, change, and future plans. Yes, they are impatient, and often bored as children are prone to be—things consistently take “forever,” and rewards delayed in any way will “never” happen. Yet these very words themselves belie childhood’s core naivete: sweet oblivion to the gristly existential meat of what forever and never really mean.
Through later childhood, this sense of floating in time gave way to a new mental paradigm: movement through time. Forward trajectory. The precise analogy varies with the environment of the era. A sense of transformative growth accompanied new creative pursuits and many years in school: upwards, outwards. Caterpillar to butterfly. Seed to tree. Tendrils of a vine, expanding in many directions, intertwining and combining with its environment to climb higher.
During a dark period of change in my late twenties, time’s forward-movement analogy best befit a tremulous walk along a tightrope in the dark. Only my most immediate steps were illuminated, and I had no confidence in my final destination. One wrong move seemed to threaten disaster. In such anxious times, excitement for the future was exchanged for dread and uncertainty.
In the earliest years of new parenthood, time flowed like a powerful river (please forgive the cliché). Control was surrendered to new-infant chaos—which was, in truth and retrospect, not chaotic at all, but rather a discernible pattern of feeding, sleeping, and growing. These were sweet little cycle-patterns of eddies and swirls, all moving together in the general direction of time’s rushing river. Oh, man. Time’s rush is everything with a baby in the house. Exhilarating. Exhausting. There were moments when I felt in harmony at last, flowing with All Time. There were also moments I felt myself drowning, crushed by the rush, unable to cope.
The concept of time’s finiteness has loomed dark and imminent lately. Just in the past year, my mental paradigm began to transform again, although I struggle as yet to identify the best analogy. What triggered this change? Perhaps returning to school last year—being on campus again, participating in a creative classroom setting. It was a pleasant if bittersweet re-experiencing of a youthful tradition. Or perhaps it was the onset of new, degenerate effects of age, beyond the occasional grey hair and laugh line. I hear it just gets better….
In anticipation of my forty-fourth birthday, I’ll call this new looming finiteness a midlife crisis of mind. Maybe a midlife epiphany. In all recent considerations of time, awareness of the finite has lent a new sense of exhilaration—if alongside a twinge of morbidity. It has invoked a life-affirming restlessness—or maybe it’s panic, dulled by midlife exhaustion. Time’s running out! Only forty-four more years to go! But I’ll still be in bed by ten.
In all recent considerations of time, the sense of time as finite has, for better or worse, replaced previous paradigmatic concerns. It has replaced worry over the crushing river’s rush. Replaced dread over the trembling tightrope in darkness. In the first mistaken analogy, the river rushes on forever. In the second mistake, the tightrope never ends.
Sometimes it seems like life is taking forever. But listen up, kids. It isn’t.
Time is running out, and it is never guaranteed.