I read somewhere that if you ever find yourself stranded on a deserted island, adrift at sea, or in some other hapless situation in which survival is a preferred customer, one of your first orders of business should be to devise a way to keep track of the days. I believe the sequence of precedence was as follows: find fresh water, construct a shelter, make a calendar. (Now that I think about it, “ find food” may have been jammed in there, too.) At any rate, a register of days, no matter how crude—and if you’re in a situation in which avoiding death is your primary motivation, I would imagine the calendrical tools at your disposal would be several appointments short of a daily planner—is crucial to survival.
Time keeps us grounded in reality. Time reminds us that we are simultaneously finite and resilient. Time reminds us that no matter where we are, how abandoned we feel, how alone, how hopeless, how forsaken our situation, we are still part of the great human community. In this way, time gives us hope. In survival situations, to lose track of time is a serious loss indeed.
A while back, there was a rather unkind scientific study investigating the effects of time—or the lack thereof—on a person’s ability to function. Over the course of several weeks, people were locked in a windowless room, one at a time, for an unspecified duration. Some were given a way of telling time, such as a clock or a watch. Others were not. Those who could track the hours and minutes remained lucid and stable. Even after spending days isolated in the room, they emerged relatively unharmed for the experience. However, the people who were not given a clock or a watch suffered not only mental and emotional breakdowns, but also physical ailments serious enough that the experiment had to be abandoned.
Now, I can’t remember if I read about this study in a scientific journal or if I saw it on an episode of Pinky and the Brain, but either way, the moral of the story is clear. We mortals need time. As much as we lament getting old, as much as we complain about time flying (or not flying, if the in-laws are in town), and as much as we mourn our limited supply of it, ultimately, time is a comfort to us. Time is orderly. Time is reliable. Time, as they say, goes on, even if we don’t. And there is something reassuring in that.
I started thinking about time on a recent long run that began a full hour before sunrise. Per usual, the “miles before dawn” phenomenon occurred.
Whenever I embark on a run that spans the transition from night to day, once the sun comes up, it’s almost as though the miles I ran in the dark never occurred. Though the transformation happens slowly—invisible objects begin to emerge from the shadows and hazy silhouettes become three-dimensional ornaments such as trees and mailboxes and stop signs—my perception of the change is sudden. One minute I’m running in a dark capsule, blind to my surroundings; the next, a brilliant, golden world is before me, from the two-story brick homes lining either side of the street to the frenetic squirrel that darts in front of me with enough over-caffeinated spontaneity to accelerate my first encounter with cardiac arrest. Suddenly, I become aware that I am running. More than that: it is as though I have just started. My watch tells me different—according to Garmin, I already have 9.13 miles under my belt—but I can hardly remember the darkness. During the first few miles, I could see neither before me nor behind me, neither to the right nor the left. Before the sun came up, my world was small and close, limited to my next step. Before the sun came up, I was oblivious to time and distance and engulfed by the dark.
But with the sun comes a new beginning.
One of my favorite poems of all time is “Acquainted with the Night,” by Robert Frost.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
At one point or another, most have us have become acquainted with the night. Some of us have known countless nights; some one or two. Some nights are darker than others. But we’ve all experienced the depths of night—whether it be illness or grief or fear or some other form of struggle—when all else dissolves, and we are oblivious to our surroundings. Ask anyone who has spent time recovering in a hospital or mourning in a funeral parlor or working an endless succession of shifts just to make ends meet. Time disappears. Reality stops. Overwhelmed by where we are, we forget where we’ve been and lose sight of where we are going.
Night can be disorienting that way.
But the thing is night doesn’t last forever. Even the dark must submit to the authority of time. We must remind ourselves that this moment is part of our life but not the whole of it. We must remind ourselves to keep moving forward, even if we can’t see the next step. We must remind ourselves that to survive the night, we must also keep track of the days. Because with the sun comes a new beginning.
It’s only a matter of time.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.