How Do I Stop Fearing The Passage Of Time?

Every month, Eric Kaplan, a philosopher and writer for The Big Bang Theory, will answer your questions about life, the universe, and everything else.  To send Eric a question, you can him email him here

Dear Eric,

I am absolutely terrified about the passage of time, which, of course, ultimately leads to death and possibly very unpleasant illness beforehand (chos v’shalom)?  I’m also afraid that time will run out before I ‘ve done/accomplished/experienced what I’ve hoped for. How would you suggest I cope with this problem?


Dear Tick,

Of course you are afraid of the passage of time, and of death, and failure to achieve enough in this life, and the loss of everyone you know and love.  If you were not afraid of losing life some day, would it mean that you loved it at all?  If you were not worried about not getting things done in your life, how could you say that you really cared about them?  The same passionate nature you have that makes you love life makes you fear that every day you are losing it.  The same engagement that makes you want to make the world a better place or create art or whatever it is you want to do, makes you hate the fact that some day it will all end, with so much art unmade, so much injustice undefeated.

And yet, you’re not just that passionate nature.  There is also a view of life that you sometimes have which tells you a perfect moment is a perfect moment.  You don’t need it to last forever.  You have the attitude that the Epicureans recommended where at the end of each day you say, “I have lived” and you are content to see it end just as after a good party you are happy to go home.  You don’t insist that the party go on forever.

“Hang on,” you say, “I don’t have that attitude.  I want more and more moments, more and more life.  I want the party to go on forever.  You are selling me on the fake bliss of the yoga studio gift store.  I am enraged and terrified that the party has to end.  Don’t lie to me.”

I won’t lie to you.  But I know that your rage and terror are not the whole story. I know that’s not the whole story because if you take a look at everything in your life you will find that the finitude and the boundedness is part of what makes it lovable.  Your memory is limited, after all. You can’t remember an infinite series of events. So if you lived forever, you would start to forget.

Your artistic creation involves a choice – if you lived forever you could write every possible book, and so could everyone.

Friendship means picking those people you care to spend your limited life with.  If you could live forever you could choose everyone to be your friend.  And if everyone was your friend, then what would it mean to be your friend?

You know that deep down you are not just the terrified person who fears that she will run out of seconds, days, years.  You are also the serene sage who knows that she is writing the story of her life, and the fact that it has an ending makes it beautiful.  Makes it a story.

So you know both – the pain and terror of our limited time on Earth and the serenity of knowing that if our time on Earth were not limited, then we would not be human beings at all.   Take away limit and you lose what makes you human, Tick: Work, making the world a better place, love, and friendship.

But I don’t want you to be terrified!  If you’re terrified you will not be able to take risks and embrace life.  You will not have any fun.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heracleitus more or less compared life to salad dressing.  Why salad dressing?  Salad dressing is a mixture of oil and water, but if you don’t mess with it, shake it, and whisk it, it comes apart into two separate things.   Salad dressing only gets to express its true nature if you put effort into it. It only gets to be what it is when we change it.

Tick-tock, you are a mixture of time and eternity, like salad dressing.  You are a mixture of a terrified, passionate, loving nature that hates that life is limited and hugs each moment you get to pieces, and an eternal perspective that knows that you are a set of beautiful ripples on an endless sea.  Like whisking salad dressing, you need to make your mixture of the two.  Every second, every conversation, every day, you will make that mixture a little differently.  One of the ingredients is terror, but don’t let your mind con you into thinking that that is the only one.  There is love and eternity in there too.

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