A Bridge in Time

I’ve been thinking about how strange it is that our sense of time can tell us, simultaneously, contradictorily, that the same period of time has felt both longer and shorter than it actually was.

Recently I saw a mention of the I-35W bridge collapse on TV. I was barely paying attention, and at first thought it was talking about a new bridge collapse. Once I figured out that it was actually referring to the anniversary of the old one, I started wondering how many years it had been.

Looking it up was a shock. My memory had stored that event as if it were very recent: I would not have been surprised to find out that it happened last year. But 2007? Seven years ago? For a few minutes I was convinced that Wikipedia had a typo.

I spent a while wondering how the last seven years could have flown by so fast. Was my perception of time speeding up that much as I grew older? Was the rest of my life going to slip through my fingers as if it were just a couple years?

Then I started thinking of other things that happened around the same time.

My book, for one. My memoir “Born on the Wrong Planet,” first published in 2003 by Tyborne Hill, was republished by AAPC in the year 2008… the year after the bridge collapse.

That republishing, though more recent, feels much longer ago. Six years feels about right to me, if not a bit short. The switch from my old publisher to my new one feels like a long-ago stage in my growth as a person; a scene from an earlier era of my life.

Why does the bridge collapse feel more recent to me than AAPC’s publication of my book? Was it because it’s a more important event? Yes, we do tend to say things like “it seems like just yesterday” when talking about memories that are important to us. And yes, objectively I realize that the bridge collapse was a more important event, affecting more lives more severely, than any event in my own life.

But in terms of my own emotional reaction to it, my brain does not seem to perceive it as more important than my book publication. It’s hard to react emotionally to a disaster that kills hundreds, when you see such disasters on the news every day. Exposure to the constant violence and destruction of real life will desensitize you faster than any gory video game or horror movie. The emotions close off as a defense mechanism.

I didn’t personally know anyone who was killed or injured in the bridge collapse, so my mind filed it as just another in a long line of deadly catastrophes on the news that my emotions couldn’t keep up with. So why, I wondered, was it so fresh in my mind, while the republication of my book– a deeply emotional process for me– seemed so long ago?

I think my mind measures time by change, not by actual passage of time. After all, change is the only way we really can measure time: the change of the seasons, the motion of the sun and moon and stars, the progress of the machinery in a clock. By observing how much things have changed, whether it’s the position of the clock’s hands or the color of the leaves, we get an idea how much time existed between now and the last time we checked.

The switch to the new publisher was an event in my own life, so I measure the time since it by how much I have changed. The bridge collapse was an event in the history of Minneapolis, so I measure the time since it by how much Minneapolis has changed.

Minneapolis is certainly a bit different now from how it was in 2007, but it’s stayed more the same, overall, than I have. Or maybe I notice the changes in myself more than the changes in my city.

I don’t know. I just know that my sense of time doesn’t provide a general feeling of time flying or time crawling for “the last seven years,” or “this past week,” or “today.” Instead of consistently judging that a certain period of time went by “fast” or “slowly,” it measures my perceived speed of time differently depending on which event I’m counting from.

It’s not really perceiving the speed of time; it’s simply tagging various memories as “recent” or “long ago,” with seemingly little regard for how long ago they actually were.

If it chooses these tags based on how much change has occurred in the relevant area since the event, that’s why the same period of time can feel like an eternity or an eye-blink depending on which memory I’m recalling.

The more a thing changes, the more time passes for that thing. A new form of temporal relativity, perhaps.

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