John Donne (1572-1631)—Anglican priest, English Metaphysical poet, and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1621-31)—has a Holy Sonnet with this startling line, “The first minute after noon is night.” Talk about the relativity of time! Because I had a hand operation for carpel-tunnel syndrome recently, I too have experienced the phenomenon of no time having passed. I’m on the operating table. The anesthesia enters my vein through the IV. I feel a pressure inside my skull, and in an instant I’m out. Then, not a second later, I find myself mysteriously recovering in the room where I’d been prepped. From my perspective, no time had passed. Yet the reality was, it was an hour later, the operation was over, and I was lying there with my left hand all bandaged.
I’ve experienced the same wrinkle in time on three previous occasions: at my colonoscopy, my total-knee replacement, and my double-hernia repair. They must have given me the same drug, the one that cuts time in two and then splices the loose ends back together like a film being edited. In the case of the colonoscopy and hernia surgery, the time snipped out was as short as it was for my hand procedure. For my knee replacement, however, it must have been three hours or more, start to finish. Go figure!
I’ve had a similar experience with the relativity of time when a few friends and I drank some tea made from psychedelic mushrooms. One moment I was interacting with a fellow traveler right in front of me. Then I closed my eyes for a second, and that person was suddenly fifty feet away, on the other side of our garden. Now this phenomenon actually exists in quantum physics, where time is no longer an absolute. For example, let’s say you’re in a rocket ship capable of traveling at the spend of light. You go somewhere a light year away and return. When you get back, no time would have passed. For, according to quantum theory, when you are traveling at the speed of light, time in effect stops.
In a more everyday context, I remember discovering in college how one could determine whether the date one was just on was positive or negative. Simple. If the time passed quickly—you know, your three hours together seemed like 20 minutes—it was a great date. And I don’t mean when you and your date are watching an excellent movie, for that too can foreshorten the impression of time passed. Of course, if your hours together dragged on, you’d better nip that potential relationship in the bud. The same thing is true for a lecture or class. The principle is the same: good times go fast, bad ones slow. This then is for me the relativity of time.