When Time Flies. When It Doesn’t.


Time is measured according to physical events of a cyclical nature–the earth circling the sun or turning on its axis, the phases of the moon, or the electronic transitions of certain atoms. Time matters to us, but it isn’t these physical cycles that concern us so much as our subjective experience of time. And subjective time varies tremendously.

We are all familiar with the manner in which time seems to speed up as we age. When we were children, each season lasted forever. It seemed summer would never arrive, but when it did, it plopped down and took up residence. The seasons move faster when we become adults, and still faster when we become seniors. We older adults have learned not to be fooled by the vast expanse of time each new year promises; we know that in short order it will be December again and we’ll be wondering “Where did the year go?”

I’ve been noticing that, despite my age, I don’t always experience time as rushing past. When I am eagerly anticipating some particular date, time moves particularly slowly. I know someone looking forward to retirement who set the date a year ago; now that he is just two months out, time isn’t racing for him, it’s crawling.

I wasn’t looking forward to retirement, so for me the time leading up to my final day didn’t move slowly. If anything, the opposite was the case. After taking my leave I relocated to Michigan to help my parents, and that’s when time slowed for me. I had to rebuild my life, and it took a very long time–longer than the calendar indicated–for that construction project to be completed. Once I had made friends, established my part-time psychology practice, and got involved in a church, time stopped dawdling and picked up its pace again.

Last year, time started slowing once more for me, and it’s still lagging. In the summer, it slowed as I was eagerly anticipating a major trip. Before and after that, I was dealing with several changes in my life: the church I had joined closed, some of the relationships I formed there didn’t last, and I started cutting back on work. The year before, I had put my house in North Carolina up for sale, but at first I was ambivalent about selling it. Now I’m ready–actually, I’m at the stage beyond ready–but the house is generating no more interest than if it were located in a toxic waste dump.

So there was something I was looking forward to, some unwelcome changes, and some changes I would have welcomed that didn’t occur. All these seemed to weigh down time. There’s one more thing that has impeded time for me more than all the others. In late 2015, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was put on a regimen of active monitoring, meaning I was tested every three months for a marker that would signal that the cancer was progressing. Time sauntered slowly from one test to the next. I eventually had another biopsy and learned that the cancer had worsened. Surgical removal of the prostate now seems the best option. The surgery date is set. Time may slow when we’re waiting for something we want to happen; it goes even slower when waiting for something like surgery, I’ve found.

So why does time slow for situations as diverse as waiting for retirement, anticipating a vacation, adjusting to a move out of state, having a house go unsold, and waiting for cancer tests or treatments? Adjusting to a move and rebuilding one’s life are active, while waiting on retirement, travel, sale of a house, and medical procedures are more passive. Perhaps a feature common to all of them is that coping with each requires effort. My friend has to make more of an effort to get up and go to work every day. I had to work on rebuilding my life, and now I’m having to deal not only with preparing for surgery but with concerns about my future health and thoughts of mortality. Clock time kept going at its usual pace, but each month I had quite a bit of psychic distance to cover.

It occurs to me that in each case the psychic journey associated with time’s loitering was one that developed qualities of persistence and patience. In other words, I was growing as a result of these experiences. Perhaps the lesson is that time slows when we are in seasons of growth. I’m glad for the growth, but I have to admit that I won’t mind it when I have less to deal with, even if time resumes its breakneck pace. Time, stop your dawdling! Take flight again!

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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