Do we experience time differently when we are elderly? We all sense time passing more quickly as we age, but in what other ways is time different?
Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life says that those who have “fallen upward” by giving up ego strivings and thereby achieving a new simplicity are more prone to live in “deep time.” He explains this as follows: “In deep time, everybody matters and has his or her influence, and is even somehow ‘present’ and not just past.” Deep time erases the barriers that the years erect between us: “Once a person moves to deep time, he or she is utterly one with the whole communion of saints and sinners, past and future.”
I don’t live in deep time in the sort of total way that Rohr describes. I do think I’ve tasted from that dish more often as the years have passed, though. One such occasion occurred when I first visited Europe in 1999. I was 51 at the time, and so was well into midlife. Visiting the battlefield at Waterloo, I imagined not only the battle but the bodies that must have covered the land afterwards. I thought of parents, wives, and girlfriends who anxiously awaited news, and the thousands of messages that confirmed their worst fears. I thought of the battlefield being visited through the following decades by grieving family members, with their flow gradually ebbing through the years, until at last there were no more visitors who were paying homage to someone they had known personally, just us tourists, gawking casually at the scene as if we were passers-by at the site of an accident. All this came to me at once, and I felt as if the battle and its aftermath were not separated from me at all. I entered the past again a few days later when I stood before the ossuary at Verdun, which contains the remains of 200,000 unidentified WWI soldiers.
I have had more frequent (though not as powerful) visits to deep time in the past year. Last summer, I came back to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the city where I grew up, to help my elderly parents. As I drive around town, I pass by places that I remember from the fifties and sixties—the school where I attended kindergarten, the house where my great-grandfather lived, the building that used to house my dad’s business. Such places evoke memories. I enter deep time when the memories of these places are more real to me than my present experience of them. What is now the Westsider Café is to me still Zoot Hardware, with a room in the back where I could go to look at the toy trains and model kits. It seems as if, somewhere in my parent’s basement, I must still have a ‘54 Chevy model that I bought there and carefully constructed, as well as a model of that modern marvel, the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier.
My sense of deep time also connects me to events that actually antedated my own memories. As a high school freshman, I attended classes in the Mad (i.e. Madison) building, a stunning but decrepit Victorian edifice where my grandmother had gone to school fifty years earlier. The building was closed the next year and torn down a few years after that, but it is still very real to me, with the memory connecting me not just to my adolescence but my grandmother as a young woman. Similarly, there is a building on West Leonard Street that for me is forever connected to the store my great-grandfather ran there and to his success as a local businessman (alas, the family’s good fortune didn’t survive the Great Depression).
In various other ways, time seems to separate me from the past less than it used to. Since becoming a grandparent, I also feel less separated from the future. I think of my three grandchildren inhabiting a world I’ll never see, and that makes the mid-21st century more real to me. Perhaps I’ll enter into deep time more and more as I age.
Some older adults with dementia mistake a visitor for a long-deceased relative or think that their child is actually a parent. They certainly are confused, but I wonder if another way of thinking about their perceptions is that they are living in deep time. Ordinarily, we experience the present as more real than the past, but many with dementia no longer experience that gradation of time. Perhaps for them time slopes the other way—the present is harder to reach than the past. I appreciate the value of living in deep time, but I hope not to go that deep!
One other thought about deep time: Jesus told the authorities, with whom he was having a dispute, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The common interpretation of this, supported by the context, is that he was making a claim about his divinity. I wonder if he was also saying that he lived in deep time?