The Most Scariest Thing
I am obsessed with time. The obsession started my sophomore year of college when I had to take a science class with a lab in order to fulfill the science portion of my gen eds for my degree. There were options of physics classes, chemistry classes, biology classes, and one astronomy class. By chance I ended up in astronomy. Or you could call it dumb luck too.
The fall semester of my freshman year, I took Introductory Chemistry, thinking I would complete the class and its lab, therefore fulfilling my science credit. But there was nothing introductory about that class to me—learning chemistry was like learning to play the bagpipes underwater. I failed the class with a 46% as my final grade.
So instead of looking into beakers and Bunsen burners, I looked up at the stars. And written in them was Introductory Astronomy. I enrolled in the class for the fall semester of my sophomore year, determined to check off the science gen ed, burying the 46% chemistry failure under a pile of constellations and planets and supernovas.
It turned out I was bad at astronomy too. I thought the class would be stargazing and zodiac signs, but it was calculating the eccentricity of an ellipse, moon cycles, and predicting the peripatetic patterns of planets. Only once did we look through a telescope at night, and the professor laughed at me when, looking at the moon, I asked him if the American flag Neil Armstrong had planted was visible. Apparently you need the Hubble Space Telescope to see something like that, not just an Orion 8945 SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian.
There was, however, one part of the class that interested me. We learned all about time and how time can be read by just looking at the sky, old methods of telling time, old calendars, how different cultures interpreted and measured time, time zones and their origins. I thought it was the most fascinating thing I had ever learned in a classroom.
It wasn’t long before I was immersing myself in all things time. Like how Greenwich, England, is the center of time for the global system of time zones; how the moon’s gravity is a planetary drag and days on Earth are progressively getting longer at a rate of 1.7 milliseconds per century; how the most accurate clock is powered by strontium atoms, and its precision is so exact it will be off only by one mere second over the course of ninety billion years. These are the kind of facts I filled my mind with. And in the end it paid off. I got a B– in the class and my science credit, with a new obsession to boot.
But like most obsessions, I fear that it may have devolved into a bad thing in my life at some point. Every day, one of the first things I do is acknowledge the date and run it back in my memory as far back as I can. For example, a day before writing this, two years ago, my mom got married to her second husband. That same day but a year later, I was the best man in my friend’s wedding. Eleven days before, four years ago, I started a new job that I ended up having for over three and a half years. Nine days before writing this, four years ago, an ex-girlfriend and I started dating. Four days before this, six years ago, I was interviewed by a local newspaper after a baseball game and felt like a real sports star. It’s thoughts like these that inundate my mind every day.
I can’t simply start the day and go on with it in its current manifestation—the present. The present is always an afterthought for me, running from my mind until all the ghosts of today past have been indexed and neatly organized.
The internet tells me this could be the result of a condition called hyperthymesia, but I doubt it. I’m reluctant to self-diagnose anything, especially hyperthymesia, because I lack some of the more telling symptoms. Nonetheless there is some assurance in knowing the verbiage behind my obsession and knowing that I’m not alone in my date perseveration.
Jorge Luis Borges, in 1942, wrote “Funes the Memorious,” a short story about a nineteen-year-old boy named Ireneo Funes, who has an immaculate memory and displays all the signs of hyperthymesia. Borges writes, “Funes was a precursor of the supermen, ‘a vernacular and rustic Zarathustra.’” But Funes is tormented by his immaculate memory. His perpetual memory machine keeps him awake all hours of the night, running back events of days past, years past, all prior events in his life, which come to mind instantly and perfectly clear and discernible. And still, despite Funes’s internal torment, Borges describes him later in the story as “monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids.” His memory is seen as a gift to the outside world, but a gift that’s short-lived, as Funes dies at the age of twenty-one of lung congestion at the end of Borges’s story.
“Funes the Memorious” is about more than just a young man with hyperthymesia and his tragic fate. It’s about the necessity of forgetting, how losing the fine details in our memory allows for us to think independently, to expand our thoughts, to be abstract and original, untethered from the past and its influence. “To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there were nothing but details,” laments Borges. Without separation from the past, one is forever anchored to it.
Time dilation is a concept used to explain changes in the passage of time caused by general relativity. As it follows, a clock in outer space would move faster than a clock on Earth, because planets create a gravitational field and slow down time nearby. Albert Einstein was the first to discover and put to words the concept of time dilation with his theory of relativity in 1905. By the 1920s, time dilation was understood and accepted by the physics community. It’s a complicated concept to fully comprehend, and I had to watch a few “Time Dilation for Kids” YouTube videos before it even made an iota of sense to me. But there is one example of time dilation I’m sure many are familiar with. It occurs in Christopher Nolan’s movie Interstellar.
Cooper, Brand, and Doyle—Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Wes Bentley respectively—explore Miller, a water planet, while they leave Romilly—David Gyasi—behind on the spaceship. On Miller, time moves differently than it does on the ship. Things go awry on the planet: Doyle gets swallowed by a tidal wave, forcing Cooper and Brand to abandon the planet and leave him behind. As a result, Cooper and Brand return later than they had anticipated. Upon their return, they’re met by an aged Romilly, with a receding hairline, silver flecks in his beard, and wearing a plaid bathrobe you only ever see old men wear—to really pronounce his aging. When he sees his crewmates return, Romilly utters, “I’ve waited years.”
“How… how many years?” asks Cooper.
TARS, a robot assigned to the ship, says it’s been twenty-three years, four months, eight days on the ship. Though on Miller, only a couple hours had passed.
On a YouTube video of the scene, in a comment liked by 282 users, Cholo Del rosari0 wrote, “Einstein [sic] theory of relativity and gravity are the most scariest [sic] thing existed [sic] in our life and in our universe.” To which user roberto manuer replied, “It freaks me out ! [sic]”
And I agree with both rosari0 and manuer. I expended a lot of time and effort into trying to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity and time dilation. When I finally understood some of it, I wished I hadn’t. It’s terrifying. I was better off not understanding it.
I haven’t been to outer space, but I’ve experienced time dilation in my own life. After I finished college, I moved back home like most History majors do after graduation. The town I grew up in and where I moved back to is a small town—a tightknit, homogenous group burrowed comfortably in Midwestville, USA. Though I like the town I grew up in and have no animus toward it, things are different there, like time. Time moves differently in a small town. Very differently.
I was—I am—twenty-three years old and single when I moved back home. Twenty-three and single, in most parts of the world, is not seen as an issue of any sort. It’s normal, I think, to live uninhibited in your early twenties and settle down later with someone once you have had your fun and lived your single life. But not in a small town. Being twenty-three and single in a small town is the equivalent of being fifty-two and thrice divorced in other parts of the world. People think something is wrong with you. You’re seen as an undesirable. Obviously if you were a normal human being you would have married two or three years ago like normal people do. It felt like I was Romilly, but this time I was the one returning, and everybody else was Cooper and Brand, looking on in horror and with feigned sympathy.
I’ve had married friends try to set me up on dates as if I’m some desperate quinquagenarian who let the golden hour of love passively slink into the blue hour and now must settle for a contrived relationship because I need to marry before it’s too late. I’m only twenty-three, mind you, and I have friends thinking like this about me.
And it’s not just friends. Shortly after I moved back home, my mom sat me down for a serious talk. It was about me being unmarried, how some of my friends are married, how my older sister married at twenty-three, how my younger sister is in a serious relationship; and the finale was how when my mom was my age she was already married, had a kid, and was pregnant with a second (me). I had stepped into an entirely different cosmos of time—a cosmos where time was accelerated, especially once you reached your twenties.
Had Einstein been born and raised in a small town, I think he too would have noticed this small town time dilation phenomenon. He didn’t get married until he was twenty-three, so he was nearing pariah status. But Einstein was born in Ulm, a city in Germany with a population of roughly 40,000 at the time of his birth. At sixteen, he moved to Zurich, Switzerland, the largest city in Switzerland. Therefore he missed out on observing the effects of small town time dilation, which maybe would have helped him in explaining his theory of relativity if he had been able to put it in such simple, applicable terms. Anybody who lives or has lived in a small town, single and over the age of twenty, is familiar with time dilation, whether consciously or not.
The idea that time heals all wounds, I believe, must have first been said by someone completely devoid of wounds—someone with a smooth, unblemished surface and interior. Because anybody with a wound, no matter how small it may be, knows that time certainly doesn’t heal anything. And it’s not supposed to, either. Time has never claimed to be a healer, but somewhere along the way it got the reputation.
I once read it takes five years for a quadriplegic to feel that their injury was always a part of their normal life. Only five years to forget the function of your arms and legs and all they had done for you in the past. I think this proves the resilience of the human spirit, how quickly we adapt to circumstances and surroundings in order to survive and keep moving forward. Humans are incredibly pliable, almost like our bones are made of little Gumby dolls, not hardened calcium phosphate and collagen. But this five-year sentiment also reveals the innate effortlessness of being in the present, even when it hurts. The past is there in our minds, and maybe it’s more alluring than the present, but the present is the only time that’s tangible. The present requires no effort to be in, whereas the past requires recall and recollection.
It came at a pertinent time when I read about quadriplegics normalizing their injury after five years. The five-year marker of my dad’s death was approaching. This had me thinking if maybe at five years I would normalize the loss of my dad, and possibly even erase him from my unconscious memory, convince myself I never had a dad anyway, that life was always this way. I can say definitively that parts of him have been lost to time. And it all happened unconsciously, as if one day parts of him started escaping my mind while I wasn’t watching over them. One of the first things I lost was his voice. I started to lose it after only six months. Right now I can’t pin down the tone and timbre of his voice. I know it sounds similar to mine: slightly soprano for a man but able to get deep when necessary—like when answering the phone, so people don’t ask if they’re speaking to my mom or one of my sisters. To get the sound of his voice, I would have to go back and watch old videos of him. But to me that feels fake. It doesn’t feel right that I can’t naturally remember him, that I need the assistance of something artificial to bring a piece of him back.
I have lost his posture, his gait, even the color of his eyes without the assistance of old photographs. The last text messages we exchanged and voicemails he left me were lost when I got a new phone, which happened less than a year after he died. Family pictures with him were gradually taken down in my mom’s house—they were too much to look at every day. His closet full of clothes was emptied one day without me ever noticing. Over time the vestiges of not only his impact on my life but his entire existence in it have perniciously escaped me, nearing extinction now at five years. No doubt my obsession with time and indexing the past has helped somewhat preserve my dad in memory, but even then, I can only summon so much of him to mind now, just fragments sometimes. It almost feels normal to not think of him at all.
I used time to expedite the grieving process after my dad’s death. I know this now in hindsight. After his death, I would obsessively timestamp the days, which fed into weeks, then months, years, and now half of a decade. I would tell myself thing like, “It’s been one month now, you can’t keep crying over it.” Or, “Six months, no more feeling sorry for yourself.” Then, “Three years, time to move on and leave him.” It wasn’t healthy. I realized I had become obsessed with the temporal aspect of grief, not the emotional aspect. I didn’t allow myself to feel the emotions whirling around in my head and to be an actual human being about my grief. I turned into a grief-repellant robot, fueled by time to tell me all the reasons why I shouldn’t feel sadness or anger or denial or pain. The treatment I received from time turned out to only be palliative care. The pain could be temporarily soothed but never cured with time.
I wanted to live forever in the good past and run from the bad past. But there doesn’t have to be such polarity when thinking about the past, especially with my dad. It’s not that he’s fading in the past and therefore nonexistent in my memory in the present. He’s always there in the past, in memories, whether I recall them with perfect accuracy or not. Perhaps to normalize your life doesn’t mean to heal it. It means to adapt and accept it. The past is always there—it’s fossilized in time. The present is the clay we mold ourselves with, and if we choose to, we can use scraps of the past, because they’re there if we ever need them.
In 1752, in what would eventually become the United States, the date went from September 2, 1752 on Wednesday to September 14, 1752 on Thursday. The reason for the disappearance of eleven days was the change from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar. The Western world had been operating on the Julian Calendar since 45 BCE, but in 1582 it was found the calendar was incorrect. So Pope Gregory XIII promoted a new accurate calendar, eponymously named the Gregorian Calendar. France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain switched calendars in 1582 and lost ten days. The longer you waited to switch calendars, however, the more days you lost. The soon-to-be United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom lost eleven days when they all finally switched in 1752.
What did colonists and their British overlords think about the time change? How did they react? They rioted in the streets, set flame to government buildings, bureaucrats were hanged, drawn, and quartered; people demanded for their precious time back, they refused to lose their eleven days and be subjected to the jump in time; anarchy was loosed upon the colonies.
Not really. None of that happened.
But there was a myth, known as the Calendar Riot Myth, that depicted this state of unmitigated frenzy after the time shift. The myth was propagated by a satirical article written by Lord Chesterfield and a painting by William Hogarth, titled An Election Entertainment. Not much is truly known about how the masses reacted to the loss of eleven days. The primary concern that received the most documentation was taxing; many worried their taxes would need to be paid earlier than usual. But a provision in the act that implemented the calendar change ensured taxes would be due at their original date—the date using the Julian Calendar.
It’s most likely that the time shift was accepted with resignation. Eleven days had disappeared and were rendered irrecoverable with the permanent calendar change, and that was that. There was still Thursday the day after the change, albeit it looked different now as September 14, 1752, not September 3. The present was still there, though, and it was going to happen regardless anyone chose to participate in it or not.
I sometimes wonder what the world would be like today if eleven days disappeared. Certainly there would be many more hang-ups than just taxing. As the world has evolved and grown technologically, our dependence on time has grown too. I think those effects would be felt everywhere. But what about those who have a second home in the past, those who visit it when the present gets a little too cold for their liking? They’d lose a big part of themselves. Maybe they’d riot, or maybe they’d have no choice but to be where they are and be there now.
Though it cannot heal, time can distract. And it’s very good at it. The distracting nature of time, I think, is most evident in everybody’s life when relationships end. It’s sad when it first ends and you mourn the end of the relationship, but as time goes on it feels like it gets easier. All of life’s distractions become too much and you eventually move on from the relationship, abating the sadness. There’s drama at work, family gossip, friend gossip, you have an oil change scheduled for next week, you barely remember singing “Come On Eileen” at karaoke the night before and now you’re going to spend all day in a cocoon of embarrassment. Time keeps moving and it drags you along with it, giving you less and less time to lament the further it drags you. Time away from someone allows you to construct them in your own image. Maybe you now see them as a boring homebody who always kept you cooped up when you wanted to go out, maybe they drank a little more than you would have liked, or they were constantly criticizing any little mistake you made, or they were too controlling. The passage of time gives you the freedom to paint portraits in any style you choose.
Of course, the freedom to paint someone how you choose can only happen when you keep moving forward and live in the present. You must leave that person behind and create your own image, no matter how abstract it may be.
When I think of someone, no matter what has happened to them or who they have become, I think of them in their happiest moments I ever saw them. It reminds me of who they are when everything is just right, who they always wish to be. That, I think, is who someone really is.
This may sound righteous and perhaps even poetic, but it’s bad and it belies the distraction time provides. It’s especially bad when it comes to the end of relationships—when the distraction of time is needed, and the ability to create someone out of an abstraction will help with moving on. Instead of dipping my paintbrush into a palette of abstractions and applying layers to the canvas, my mind is stuck on existent images, like how her brown eyes ballooned open and how squeaky her voice got out of excitement when we were at the black-footed cat exhibit at the zoo, or the way she kicked up sand when she excitedly turned to me to show me she got the perfect picture of the sun setting on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The past can be an impasse, a morass of memories and old thoughts and feelings that will bog you down and swallow you the further you immerse yourself in it. It’s fine to occasionally look at it and reflect, maybe even appreciate. But it’s no place to live. It cannot sustain life. Good past, we cling to it and try to get back to it. Bad past, we blot out of our minds and try to forget we ever lived there. Perhaps it’s a form of time dilation. Time passes differently depending on where we are, and time is interpreted differently depending on how we felt during it.
Understanding a problem and its etiology doesn’t mean it’s solved. If it were that easy, science and medicine would have found a cure for just about every illness heretofore discovered and researched. It requires work—trial and error, sometimes more error than I would like. There’s a delicate balance between living in the now and remembering the past. Too far on either side, I think, and you start to lose yourself—the self you are now and the pieces that went into constructing that self.
If only I had passed Introductory Chemistry my freshman year.
Riley Winchester lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recently graduated from Grand Valley State University, where he earned a B.A. in History. His writing has appeared in Writing Disorder and Waymark.