Currently, there is a variety of undeniable signs cropping up around me that indicate I’m graduating, from the flood of emails in my inbox about commencement to the small mountain of coffee cups I have near my study spot from late nights with senior capstone projects. It would be hard to write off the amount of evidence sitting in front of me that I need to start preparing for college to be over. However, until recently, I was a master of denial; without a clear path in front of me for my post-grad steps, I just didn’t want to think about the future. 

It wasn’t until I was talking with my mom at the end of Spring Break that I knew I needed a better way to think about this upcoming life change. She pointed out that, while I can continue seeing graduation as seven long weeks away, or an entire half a semester away or even as being more than 1000 hours from now (a lifetime!), graduation is next month now —  which is, in fact, not a lifetime. 

When I resumed breathing after that chilling realization, I tried to sort through some new coping mechanisms for tamping down the desire to dig my heels in harder against time. Ultimately, I’ve found that, above all else, the knowledge that time is completely relative has been a massive help in making my way through my final semester in a relatively calm way.

One of the hardest things to overcome in handling the fear that comes with graduating is a lack of concrete plans after getting kicked out of the dorms. This anxiety gets even worse when people around you do, in fact, have things figured out already, whether it’s grad school, a career or some turf picked out for panhandling. Considering the relativity of time can give a healthier perspective on this, though.

This understanding of the relativity of time comes from a couple places for me. First, a couple semesters ago, I took a course on rocket science (which does mean that I am officially a rocket scientist and get to pretend to be superior). While doing a refresher course on physics, we covered Einstein’s laws of motion and theory on general relativity, which show that time is relative. That is to say, bodies being acted upon by different levels of gravity will experience the passage of time differently.

The other classes I can point to where the relativity of time was discussed are my linguistics courses. It was pointed out that some languages, like Hopi, don’t conceptualize time in the same way that English does. Based on theories of linguistic relativity and, more specifically, Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis that our language shapes our experience of reality, this language difference has the implication that even our experience of time differs based on how we express it. Someone speaking Hopi instead of English might have a completely different perception of the passage of time.

In short, time is an illusion, changing based on how we think about it or what our frames of reference are compared to others’. What’s “slow” or “early” for an individual is completely open to interpretation in the grand scheme of things. 

While Einstein’s theories are usually applied to physical motion, and linguistics uses the idea of time as a tool for comparing worldviews, I find that these ideas can very easily be applied to dealing with the fear associated with being “on time” in life.

When I begin to compare my own progress to that of those around me, it’s easy for me to see how relative time is. More often than not, the timing of milestones and the general timelines that others operate on are different enough from my own that it’s pointless or even misleading to use them for myself.

Most notable for me was that many of my friends are in engineering fields, which began to hire months before any of the jobs I would be applying to. Seeing people around me settled with concrete plans made me more panicky than normal, until I recontextualized the timeframe. Their timelines are not my own, and I’m not running late or falling behind at all; I’m running on my own time, figuring things out and trying out avenues of possibility at my own speed.

While there are deadlines that I need to hit soon (I am more than aware that I need a job soon, don’t remind me), as soon as I stopped looking at what others were doing as a direct comparison to what I was doing, I felt infinitely more relaxed. My first post-grad job is probably not going to be my last, and I can take my time to build up to my dream job of being a football-playing queen in space.

So, while I am still hyper aware of the passage of time right now, and I’m still not exactly racing toward that finish line, I at least know that I have options, I have ideas and, more than anything, I have time.

Sarah Leeson can be reached at sleeson@umich.edu.

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