The Illusion of Infinite Time

Steve Jobs had some excellent advice about the importance of remembering that you’re going to die. The reason the advice is so good is that we’re always forgetting about death. Why is this?

Emily Temple explains it well on LitHub:

Okay, so we all accept that mortality is bearing down on us — though it should be said that one of the mental tricks that makes it possible for us to exist as mortal beings without going completely insane is that we actually experience time as infinite, even though we know it isn’t. That is, barring an execution date or a known terminal illness, we wake up every morning assuming we’ll also wake up the next morning, until one morning we don’t — and on that morning, we don’t know it. Because we’re dead. So if we accept that the world we live in is a subjective construct made up of our perceptions, we’re actually all immortal — we live forever within the context of reality we’ve created for ourselves, because when we die, so does that reality.

So we convince ourselves on a regular basis that time is going to keep progressing forever. I can think of a couple reasons for this:

  • Our lizard brain is, well, inherited from the lizards. Lizards aren’t capable of understanding death. Thus at its root our brains also cannot understand death.
  • We’ve never actually experienced an end to time. It’s notably difficult to turn abstract ideas into concrete feelings.

No wonder the Buddhist idea of impermanence is so simultaneously obvious yet counterintuitive. We are wired not to perceive it.

In an article about recovering from workaholism, Khe Hy explains that “the infinite nature of time messed with my logical brain.”

It seems to have led him to emphasize doing as much as possible with every moment, instead of considering whether he was actually enjoying any of those moments.

Maggie Wilderotter, quoted in the book The Power of Full Engagement, puts it succinctly:

Time is a finite resource, and we all place infinite demands on it.

I’ve long believed it’s important to use my time wisely. Important to consider whether the things I’m doing are worth it from the perspective of future-me, looking back on life from my death-bed.

It’s not easy. Previously, whenever I failed in this pursuit, I felt guilty about it. And then I had two problems.

But perhaps knowing the reasons why it’s so difficult to see time as finite will allow me to let myself off the hook.

Conducting weekly five-minute journeys down the twisting railways of my mind. Via email, of course: https://buttondown.email/aaronjacobwolfson