Events of Telescoping Imminence

Ordinarily, we go about our daily business, without extraordinary difference between one moment and the next.  You could have spent an hour today watching a movie, but instead you decided to spend it exercising, talking with a friend, or eating.  Some parts of the day go to the job, some to sleep, but in principle you could rearrange them somewhat as needed.

Sometimes, however, we encounter special moments, typically entailing perceived danger, when our experience of time changes abruptly.  Your car suddenly launches itself off the side of the road, or someone pulls a gun on you, or – in a less obviously life-threatening vein – you are about to go on stage in the junior high school play, or you are taking the ring out of your pocket to propose marriage, or are opening your mouth to admit that you have cheated on your mate, or you have been caught in a lie, and everyone is staring at you.

At those extraordinary moments, it can seem that life, and time, have suddenly changed.  You may remain dimly aware that the moment will pass, you will live or die, you will be loved or hated – however it turns out, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is going to be over.  But this mental knowledge is of no immediate use:  at that existential moment, what you really feel is that matters are beyond your control, and you are basically along for the ride.  It is as if you have entered into a different universe, where what happens in the space of just one or two seconds – regardless of whether it is something that you say or do, or something that is said or done to you – is a world unto itself.  It feels like time stands still, as people often say, or like a moment has become an eternity.

Such situations suggest that our concept of time may be flawed or incomplete.  It is as though you were walking down the sidewalk or driving down the road, as you have done a thousand times before, when suddenly the concrete transforms itself into a monstrous crocodile that wants to eat you.  You didn’t know concrete could do that.  The situation that was supposed to be just like every other situation turns out to be extremely different from business as usual.  The seconds that were supposed to go ticking along in their usual healthy way have instead erupted into this existential chronopathology.

We do know some things about such moments.  We know that they are to some extent avoidable:  don’t cheat on your spouse, don’t put yourself into the position of flying off the roadway or lying to people, and so forth.  Or, more perversely, if you are going to do such things, at least you can practice them, experience them more frequently, and become trained to react reflexively when they occur.  It also appears that, as with the adage that chance favors the prepared mind, it may be helpful to have friends in the audience, to have purchased a safer automobile, and otherwise to be in the habit of taking precautions that may mitigate the extreme senses of loneliness and threat endemic to such situations.

Some such moments may be passed down to us from our ancestors in traditional or primitive human communities.  Maybe people learned, long ago, that an accusation of cheating, or an unacceptable performance in front of the entire tribe, could be grounds for stoning, expulsion, or other lethal group responses.  Time may seem to slow, on such occasions, because people are intensely attentive to everything that is happening.  Such focus is not surprising:  when you feel horribly exposed or endangered, every little development has potential life-or-death significance.

The title of this post characterizes such events as Events of Telescoping Imminence, which one could also refer to as ETIs.  The moments in which such events occur represent a special kind of human experience, not obviously compatible with the ordinary passing of hours and years.  In these special moments, time becomes telescoped into a microcosm.  What occurs in those seconds can have more impact than what occurred in the entire year preceding.  And we know, as it is happening, that those moments can have such inordinate impact:  there is this sense, not only of telescoping, but of imminence, of excessive importance being crammed into those seconds, of significance that would more appropriately be stretched out and duly probed and digested over a period of days or weeks.

The effort in this post has been merely to put some words on it, to articulate what occurs when people speak of an instant that felt like an eternity.  This post does not attempt the additional step of inquiring what may be implied, for concepts of human experience and eternity, when it develops that a single second may be – that, perhaps, every single second somewhere is – comprised of some orthogonal temporal dimension.

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