The new year is well underway, and as always I can’t remember which one it is. I barely got used to it being 2023, and now it’s 2024. And while this is something I and probably many of you have dealt with all our lives, it seems now to me that the numbers are just impossible. Seriously, who thought we would ever make it to 2024? With the insane fixation of pop culture on ‘apocalypse’ movies, you can’t blame us. I remember thinking at one point that 2000 was both far off and scary. Until it wasn’t. And our worst fears never materialized. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was crazy sci-fi of the distant future. For better or worse, we didn’t really get anywhere close to the reality portrayed in the movie. I’m not so much disappointed that we don’t have manned travel to Jupiter even a quarter century beyond that infamous year, but that, when it was released in 1968, 2001 seemed so distant. The future is just that: the future—with impossibly large numbers so far away. But in reality they’re not. I saw a meme this week that said that we are as close to 2034 as to 2014. But in our heads, my head anyway, 2014 was just yesterday and 2034 is way out there. In thinking back over my many years, the future has always been subjectively further away than the past even if it isn’t. The past seems so touchable, so real and in some cases so painful. The future is simply scary. It’s unknown, unknowable and, on the whole, uncontrollable. “Man plans, and God laughs,” as they say. The future has too many variables, the past has none. So perhaps that’s why we put it off in our heads. It is a time yet to be dealt with.
After googling for this column, it turns out there’s literature and a study that seems to support just the opposite: That events in the future actually seem closer than those equidistant in the past. However, as with all comparisons, the metrics need to be the same. In the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that the students that were the subjects of the study felt that events a week and a year in the future were closer than those a week and year in the past. This seeming contradiction to my obviously more correct premise above might be resolved by noting two things: In this case, the time involved in the study is relatively close: a week and a year, not years, or decades. And in that study they postulated the reason the future felt closer than the past was that time is linked to space. More specifically movement through space. And since the future is something we’re moving toward, it seems shorter than the past which, in our minds, is static; it’s already happened and not going anywhere. And the closer the future, the more apparent the movement seemed, which is again logical. Driving toward the distant mountain, the sense of movement is unimpressive, but watching the road signs zip by is something quite different. It isn’t often that popular perception can be found to be in concordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity. That’s kind of profound and a little scary. And in some ways, it’s neat that we can experience it for ourselves.
Of course as regular readers of my column know, I’m a big believer in living in the present, that it’s neither useful nor healthy to be dwelling on either the past or the future, no matter how close or far they may seem. But, we live in a world that reminds us of both, a world in constant motion, filled with currents of time that make it both exciting and scary. If you focus on the moment to moment of your life, everything flows in small increments so the future doesn’t seem so momentous when it gets here. As a result, new years to come will be both unsurprising and expected.
Dr. Blecher is an attending surgeon at Wills Eye Hospital.