Alexander Thomas

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Taking a Moment

TIL that in medieval times a moment was a unit of time that was actually measurable! It was related to the movement of the shadow on a sundial, so its real length cannot be easily converted into our time format, but it must have been something like 90 seconds on average.

I was quite interested to learn this because I use the term 'moment' a lot in my everyday life, although it seems that I've never really thought about what it actually stands for - for me and in general.

For me the most common use case for a moment is usually to request a slice of time to wrap up, what I’m doing and start something new. This includes bringing a conversation (verbal or written) to a graceful end, and persisting any current state in a way that I can resume it whenever I need to.

And so this is what a moment is for me: it takes about five minutes and is a transitional period between two contexts.

What my moment does not contain is any kind of reflection. Neither about the ending context nor about the one that is coming. To add this to the transition would require another of my moments (so another 5 minutes). This would allow me to come out on the other side with a clear state of mind and mental capacities ready to take on a new challenge.

Unfortunately, often times I don't do this properly, and so I often find myself in a new context with half of my background capacities still occupied with the last one. Needless to say, this is not only unsatisfactory for me, but also frustrating for those around me.

Thinking about all of this, one more thing occurs to me: a moment (or two, to be precise) may allow me to transition from one subject to another, but it doesn’t involve any real change of state.

Anger, frustration, excitement, happiness... – Whatever general state I was in before, will be carried with me into the next situation. And this will continue to do so unless I invest more effort and take the time for a 20-minute transition that allows me to completely reset and be open for something new.

Whether it's a meditation or – depending on my energy level – just a quick nap, to me these 20 minutes do magic! If I had challenging talks and I came out feeling frustrated and exhausted, a 20-minute transition is what it takes to stop feeling like that. And that is an absolutely worthwhile investment for all things that are important to me in some way. I can feel my mental muscles relax and I become much more capable of empathy again - no matter what happened before.

So, the understanding of what a moment was for people of the Middle Ages obviously falls short for me. But learning that a moment was once a measurable unit of time helped me to think about transitive states, which you want to handle with attention so that not only your physical shell but your whole person arrives at the other end. At the end of the day, installing clear boundaries between situations prevents misunderstandings and confusion from happening, because how on earth can your interlocutor understand that your rough replies are coming from a completely different conversation your had with someone else in a completely different context?