Pieces of time

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My friend used to have two ‘days’ each day, with a nap be­tween—in the af­ter­noon, he would get up and plan his day with op­ti­mism, what­ever hap­pened a few hours be­fore washed away. Another friend re­cently sug­gested to me think­ing of the whole of your life as one long day, with death on the agenda very late this evening. I used to worry, when I was very young, that if I didn’t sleep, I would get stuck in yes­ter­day for­ever, while ev­ery­one else moved on to the new day. Right now, in­deed some peo­ple have moved on to Mon­day, but I’m still wind­ing down Sun­day be­cause I had a bad headache and couldn’t sleep. Which is all to say, a ‘day’ does not just mean a 24 hour mea­sure of time, in our minds. Among its fur­ther sig­nifi­cance, we treat it as a mod­u­lar unit: we ex­pect things within it to be more con­tin­u­ous and in­ter­min­gled with each other than they are with things out­side of it. What hap­pens later to­day is more of a go­ing con­cern at pre­sent than some­thing that hap­pens af­ter sleep­ing. The events of this morn­ing are more part of a con­tin­u­ous chap­ter, ex­pected to fla­vor the pre­sent, than what hap­pened yes­ter­day. The same is true to some ex­tent for weeks, months and years (but not for fort­nights or pe­ri­ods of 105 hours).

I think days are well treated as mod­u­lar like this be­cause sleep­ing re­ally sep­a­rates them in rele­vant ways. I no­tice two other kinds of nat­u­ral mod­u­lar time-chunks that seem worth think­ing in terms of, but which I don’t have good names for:

  • Pe­ri­ods dur­ing which you are in one con­text and stream of thought (usu­ally a minute to a few hours long). For in­stance the pe­riod of go­ing for a walk, or the pe­riod be­tween get­ting home and re­ceiv­ing a phone call that throws you into a new con­text and set of thoughts. Dur­ing one such chunk, I can re­mem­ber a lot about the se­ries of thoughts so far, and build upon them. Whereas if I try to go back to them later, they are hard to bring back to life, es­pe­cially the whole set of thoughts and feel­ings that I wan­dered around dur­ing a pe­riod, rather than just a sin­gle in­sight brought from it. Within chunks like this, my ex­pe­rience seems more con­tin­u­ous and in­ter­min­gled with other ex­pe­rience within the chunk. Then I get an en­gag­ing mes­sage or de­cide to go out, and a new mi­ni­a­ture chap­ter be­gins, with new feel­ings and thoughts. (Though I’m not sure how much other peo­ple’s thoughts de­pend on their sur­round­ings, so maybe for oth­ers a change of con­text is less of a re­set).

  • Similarly, longer pe­ri­ods of re­peat­edly be­ing in par­tic­u­lar places with par­tic­u­lar peo­ple. Th­ese might be decades of set­tled mar­riage or a few days of be­ing on a trip. For me they are of­ten a month to a year. They are punc­tu­ated by mov­ing, break­ing up, chang­ing jobs. They tend to have their own rou­tines and sys­tems and pat­terns of thought. For me, start­ing a new one is of­ten marked by a similar op­ti­mism and am­bi­tion for a fresh start as morn­ings. And end­ing one shares with evenings a risk of sad­ness at wasted op­por­tu­nity.

Both of these also end be­cause of some­thing like sleep—changes of con­text that break the con­ti­nu­ity of thoughts or habits within the pe­riod, ei­ther be­cause those things re­lied on the pre­vi­ous con­text as some­thing like mem­ory, or be­cause the new con­text asks for a new ac­tivity that re­places the old one, and the old one needed the con­ti­nu­ity to stay al­ive.