313: Embracing Time Against Anxiety

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It seems without our modern conception of time, there is little place for anxiety.

Why is that? We first need to try to understand where anxiety sits in our heads. Worry is a close cousin. Worry might be described as a fear of the future: fear that at some future time, we will be in some undesirable state. It's not anxiety, but it's close.

The temporal opposite of worry is regret. While worry is a fear of some future situation, regret is a fear or remorse of our past. Regret is obviously not anxiety either, yet it's also not not anxiety in some way.

We might think of anxiety as a worry about future regret. A fear of an undesirable future in which we regret the present we’re currently living. This explains why anxiety feels more active and embodied than normal worry. While worry is a future oriented fear that we can only think about, anxiety is a future oriented fear that we must fight this moment.

Yet there’s a curious aspect to anxiety that distinguishes it from worry and regret. Anxiety is a physical emotion: you feel anxious in your heart and lungs and eyes in a way you do not feel worry. Rapid heart beat, sweat, flushed skin, heavy breathing, tunnel vision.

Perhaps you noticed something though. Am I describing anxiety? Or excitement? They're physiologically identical. But how can two radically different emotions feel so physically similar?

It seems to be related to our relationship with time. It's whether we see the challenge as something which we're motivated to use our time to struggle against, or see the challenge as something which we're terrified to run out of time for. It's whether we're pushing time into the task, or being pulled through time by it. Whether we're masters of time, or time is mastering us. Is the deadline a guillotine or a podium?

To prevent anxiety then, we must become masters of time. Another job for Pomodoro Timers and GANTT charts. Tempting, but I don't think so. Once we consider time as something to be mastered, we've already lost. We've atomized time as another resource capable of optimization.

Most of our terminology around time is designed to slice it as thinly as possible to allow for greater utilization. Days, seasons, lunar and solar cycles exist with or without human brains to interpret them. Minutes, seconds, hours, weeks, months, these exist only in our minds.

Breaking time into chunks allows us to treat it like a resource and optimize our use of it. And once it becomes a resource we can use, it because a resource we can misuse, and therein lies the anxiety. But embedded in our habit of time atomization is the assumption that time is finite, scarce, and needs to be conserved. If time weren't scarce, there would be nothing to be anxious about.

Perhaps you've heard of the coastline paradox. Coastlines are fractal: their complexity grows as you zoom in. Any attempt at measuring them is incomplete. If you zoom in more, you'll see more variation in the coastline, need to measure it more closely, and end up realizing you underestimated its length.

When you do the math on this, the ultimate length of the coastline is infinity. Of course you can't really measure it on an infinitesimal scale, but you get the idea. The scale at which you measure the coastline determines its length. Might we say the same for time?

There's a concept I often cite from "Moonwalking with Einstein" around memory anchors. The more anchors you can create for a memory, the easier it is to remember. If you can split your parties into 3-4 different activities in different spaces, the party is more memorable because people have a richer more varied memory to look back on.

It also has the effect of making the party feel longer. When you stand around nursing tequila sodas and picking at the food for 2 hours, the party is a quick blur. When you move through four different activities and locations in the same time period, the party feels much longer during and on reflection. Time probably flew by, but when you reflect, you are amazed at how much happened in such little time.

Our experience of time is like the coastline. How finely we slice it determines how much there seems to be. You may have months where you pack in years of experiences, and years that you barely remember. Which period of time was longer? If you remember more time from the month, wasn't that period greater than the forgotten years spent stuck in a drab routine, devoid of memorable anchors?

At least when looking backward, we can increase the perceived length of our life by zooming in. By having more anchors to tie the time of our past to. By knowing what we were doing days, seasons, and years ago. Through photos, journals, videos, and work, we create the anchors that decide how high fidelity our time becomes.

But how does that help us manage the relationship between anxiety and time in the present? At first it seems we should try to pack our days with anchors, with signals to our future selves that WE WERE HERE. I think that misses the point though. What we should take from this is thought exercise is: our time is infinite.

We will die. The coastline does end. But between A and B is a windy trail that we can choose how closely to follow. We can float over it, letting the coastline pass as we take the direct route (that would be the most productive after all), or we can splash around in the sand with a magnifying glass seeing how fine of a measurement we can get.

This is true mindfulness. Not continuing our daily meditation streak so we can calmly answer emails. But designing a life where we can Be Here Now. Where we can play in the sand, enjoy the coastline, and not feel that we might be wasting some finite resource that must desperately be conserved.

Our struggle between anxiety and time is both internal and external. The external involves finding ways to reduce or eliminate the forces which drag us through time. Forces that turn the joy of using our infinite time in the present moment into a brutal quest for time dominance.

And the internal work is learning to zoom in on the coastline. To try to remember that our time approaches infinity depending on how we slice it, and we need only focus fully on the present moment while creating anchors for our future selves to build ourselves an abundance of time.

Struggling against time can break us. But by embracing time and zooming in, we might just live forever.

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