Unfolding time: in defense of long-term life and travel abroad

ImageLiving in Korea in 2010-11 I had the peculiar feeling that the passage of time was somehow slowing.  Everything I’d been told about adulthood suggested that my years would pass in an increasingly brief blink of an eye, and yet, much to my delight, life in Seoul somehow seemed to have a reversing effect.  Compared to the fifty-four months I spent in college, which had since become muddled in my memory, each indistinguishable from the next, my twelve months in living in Asia felt like a veritable eternity.  From this experience came a life-changing realization: there are two types of time, but only one that truly matters.

The first definition of time is the kind you find on a watch, “real-time”- seconds, minutes, hours, etc.  Real-time is the same for everyone.  American babies born today can expect to live about 80 years.  They have little control over their real-time lifespans.  They do, however, have a surprising level of control over the second, seldom acknowledged, type of time, what may be called “perceived-time”.

Whereas real-time dictates the number of months in a year, perceived-time defines the pace at which these months seem to pass.  A year-long round the world trip will inevitably feel quite different, temporally speaking, than a year spent working in a cubicle in one’s hometown.  While the cubicle lifestyle may lead to a considerably more stable existence, those willing to accept the unpredictable nature of the expat/travel lifestyle will be rewarded by an expanded sense of time.  Joshua Foer, author of the immensely recommendable Moonwalking with Einstein, describes the phenomenon this way-

“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.”- Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein

William James, the father of American psychology, had this to say on the subject in his 1890 Principles of Psychology-

“In youth we may have an absolutely new experience, subjective or objective, every hour of the day. Apprehension is vivid, retentiveness strong, and our recollections of that time, like those of a time spent in rapid and interesting travel, are of something intricate, multitudinous and long-drawn-out. But as each passing year converts some of this experience into automatic routine which we hardly note at all, the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units…”

James touches on an essential point that is often lost on the highly mechanized and routinized modern world.  Life will be memorable only to the extent that we put forth the effort to make it so.  Stability and routine may have their allure, but to over-embrace those things is to subject oneself to an unnecessarily “collapse” of time.  We often lament that “life is too short”, and yet so many people do the exact same thing day in and day out, failing to realize that the shortness of life is highly subjective, not to mention entirely dependent on personal choice.

I love those two quotes, because they serve to justify my relentless pursuit of movement.  Make no mistake, my choices have lead to certain disadvantages, but I consider these a minor price to pay for the assurance that I am leading a full life.  Truly, there is nothing that terrifies me more than the passage of time.  Traveling is my way of escaping, or at least forgetting, the fact of mortality.

To choose a life on the road is to embrace a life of instability, and certainly this isn’t for everyone.  Thankfully, one does not need to move to the other side of the world to have memorable experiences.  A robust life can happen anywhere and take any number of forms.  Indeed, I know a few people who rarely leave their home towns and yet seem to be leading a life every bit as rewarding and memorable as that of my travel minded friends.

That said, the distinct advantage of a life of movement is that novelty becomes the rule, rather than the exception.  Whereas those chasing the American dream will have to fight for new experiences, the nomad, by default, leads an existence defined by originality.  Our investment in chaos pays the dividend of a uniquely expansive perception of time.  And in the end, perception is all that matters.

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