Belfast Telegraph

Paul Hopkins: At my age time flies... so I make the best of every day

As another year, indeed another decade dawns, Paul Hopkins says that taking heed of the simple things puts the brake on life's quickening pace

Decade dawns: young people celebrate the start of 2020
Decade dawns: young people celebrate the start of 2020
Paul Hopkins with his daughter Niamh

By Paul Hopkins

It seems like it was only yesterday that I wrote in the Tele... Where did that year go, what with 2019 just upon us? Now, here I am again, wondering where the last 12 months went? I may not be any the wiser but I am, unfortunately, another year older and it seems, with each passing year, time flies at an alarming pace.

My wonderful daughter said to me recently regarding some topic or other, You know dad, in three years time I will be 40!

And I said, You know Niamh, I was 40 only yesterday...

Of course I was 40 a score and more years ago: it just seems like yesterday. And if you, dear reader, are of similar vintage you will know exactly what I mean.

When you are young, time passes quite slowly. Each birthday is a monumental occasion. Those long lazy summers of childhood seem to never end. We, perhaps, remember trying to make the clock hands move faster with our minds as we sat bored in class. But as we grow older, life seems to speed up. Birthdays we'd sooner forget about, rather not notice them, as we feel like we're hurtling towards old age. Why does it feel like this? Is time really moving faster somehow?

On my recent sojourn to visit my sons in the US, I came across research from the University of Kansas on a study to understand this phenomenon, of time going faster as we get older. Scientists tested the theory, first proposed by the contemporary physicist and philosopher Douglas Hofstadter, that time appears to speed up because we start grouping distinct individual experiences into larger 'chunks', like all our Christmases into one.

When we are young we have many big moments, experienced for the very first time. So going to a park can be quite a big deal, with many memorable sensations experienced. But, as you grow older, going to that park offers fewer and fewer new experiences. So, we start collapsing them into memory 'chunks', putting everything that happened simply under 'a walk in the park' - making that particular span of time feel brief. At least that's Hofstadter's contention.

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The Kansas study involved 107 volunteers who were asked to compare how events of the past year measured up to events of other years. Some of them were encouraged to group together, or 'chunk', their experiences, others to write down how events could have turned out differently - going against the 'chunking' impulse. The chunking group found their previous year passed quicker than the other group did.

The researchers also asked 115 undergraduates to reflect on different daily activities either over the past day or the past year. Those who chose to 'chunk' the past year felt it had passed faster than those who 'chunked' the previous day. Although I do my very best not to dwell on this inevitable aspect of life, I can imagine that, for many people of my vintage, perceiving life as rapidly slipping away can prove unpleasant and somewhat demotivating, psychologically harmful even which may in part explain mid-life depression for many people. Or, at the very least, a sense of nostalgia for things gone by, to which I put my hands up.

I recall a couple of years back reading a provocative essay in The Atlantic by the renowned American oncologist and bioethicist Dr Ezekiel Emanuel entitled 'Why I Hope To Die At 75'. Provocative, because the eminent scientist, now 62, has declared he will refuse medical interventions, antibiotics and vaccinations once he turns 75.

The crux of his argument is that the older among us are living too long in a "disabled and diminished state of life". He wants to make his friends and others think about how they want to live as they grow older. As he put it: "I want them to think of an alternative to succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations imperceptibly imposed by ageing."

I am, like many, at the moment at least, opposed to this kind of thinking. And, anyway, Emanuel's ideas may soon become obsolete - with many contemporary scientists believing we are on course to living up to 180 years old! (We are, in fact, still evolving but that's another day's debate.) Meantime, I endeavour to live life, each day, in the 'moment'. A kind of mindfulness, if you like, which seems to be all the buzz at the moment.

Living 'in the moment' seems to allow me to appreciate such moments more fully, creating meaningful memories.

At the end of the day, these days, I find myself more often re-sensitised to the satisfaction of the simple things life offers. Spring was never so vibrant but autumn does, most days, seem richly gold. Increasingly, I find people are of abiding interest - observed on the street, overheard on the bus, down the pub of an evening.

Small pleasures have greater meaning now; that pint, the walk by the mill, my friend's just published book of essays, my daughter's phone call...

In their own way, such simple things counteract life's quickening pace.

I'm still at middle age, if in the latter end of it - and there's something unbudgeable about the middle-aged person, not yielding, as it were, to argument or pressure.

The young are dewy and volatile, while the old are toppling into fragility. But the middle-aged hold their ground. I find a kind of attraction in this solidity, this poise, this impressively median state.

Most days, and they come fast and furious, I find myself weirdly and unwontedly calm, like riding a bicycle without using my hands. I'm not an apprentice adult anymore.

I have been through the disorientation period, the Talking Heads moment -"And you may find yourself in a beautiful house/With a beautiful wife/And you may ask yourself/Well, how did I get here?". I'm through with the angst and the panic attacks.

And, while I don't yet have the wild license of old age, I am more free. The stuff that used to obsess me - those relentless circular thoughts - have worn themselves out. I know myself, quite well, by now. Life has introduced me to my shadow, I have met my dark double and with a bit of luck the two of me have made their accommodations.

At the end of the day, middle and old age, and the attainment of such, should be laudably embraced, for it is that time of life denied so many throughout the world for whom death comes calling early.

That I have lived another year is a miracle in itself. May your new year bring you all the good life has to offer.

Miracles even...

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