Some of my friends and I are noticing our interests shift these days. This tweet sums up the phenomenon perfectly.
And it’s not just birds, but the weather, the garden, the laugh of a child. The little moments bear a new luster. And of course it makes sense. As our lives are rushing by in our younger years, the little things can get lost. We always will have the time to stop and look, to smell the roses, we reason, so we put it off. But as we feel our time here becoming more finite, our attention hones. We pause. We marvel. We are constantly astonished.
As it turns out, this experience isn’t so much a reflection of our age as it is our perception of time. When we feel time vast, spreading out before us, our focal point is on the future, but when we feel a possible end to our time here, our attention draws close and we appreciate the little things. So even someone young facing death will have this urge to stop and soak in the little things.
In his book, Being Mortal; Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande summarizes research on this experience:
“…how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have. When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever. You do not worry about losing any of your capabilities. People tell you “the world is your oyster,” “the sky is the limit,” and so on. And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future, you seek to plug into bigger streams of knowledge and information. You widen your networks of friends and connections, instead of hanging out with your mother. When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid- achievement, creativity, and other attributes of ‘self-actualization,” but as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
But our ‘knowledge’ of the time we have is far from certain. Sometimes our belief we will always have another day keeps us from appreciating the days we have. Practices like mindfulness and meditation, reading poetry, help ground us in the present so we can capture those moments, but it’s difficult to keep our own mortality enough in our consciousness to really grasp the preciousness of each moment.
In the play, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, the lead character Emily, a young woman who loses her life early in childbirth, is given the opportunity to revisit one day in her life, and she sees it all with new eyes:
Emily: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on.It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
Emily: I’m ready to go back.”
Today is that day, a day for us to realize life while we’re living it, every, every minute as much and as best as we can.