Of all of the interesting subjects in the world, time is one of my favorites. Yet the more I contemplate it, the more mysterious it seems. As human beings we can imagine time as a product of past, present, and future, although we clearly perceive of ourselves as being stuck in the middle.
Albert Einstein, arguably our most celebrated scientist, muddied the notion of now, but in doing so he did us a big favor. His theory of relativity suggests that past, present, and future exist simultaneously. This is a fascinating concept, though perhaps beyond our literal grasp. Still, it is very useful to keep all three of these components in mind as we make our way in time. If these entities are all present concurrently, then relativity implies that time simply is. Moreover, if ambiguity were intolerable, then the very prospect of the coexistence of past, present, and future—with the added relativistic notion that time and space are interchangeable—could wreck a person’s psyche.
Public enthrallment with time-travel stories seems to me to rest partly with the veiled suspicion that the possibility of going back in time alludes to the existence of a peculiar form of eternity. In other words, it offers subtle hints of immortality, because if the past still exists, in any sense, it adds an existential twist to the subject of perpetuity. This is especially germane for our species because our conscious and unconscious fear of death is so great that evidence of its ubiquity in myriad psychological guises is hard to overestimate. Psychologists often have to remind us of the vast number of nonsensical efforts we resort to as a distraction from the reality of our own individual mortality.
If we had only one word to stand for the existence of time, space, and the enigma of the coexistence of past, present, and future, our perception could result in a paradigm shift in our understanding of time. We might even call this a state of being time wise. As it is, we find it necessary to embrace both the illusion of time’s arrow and the law of entropy that says, once cracked, eggs don’t become whole again. Einstein aside, we cannot live any other way than we do today with regard to time. Still, we might come closer to understanding Einstein’s conclusions if we could become time wise with the caveat that, in spite of all that is known about time, it still appears to be a mystery beyond our comprehension.
According to many thoughtful scientists, time may very well turn out to be something dramatically other than what it seems. But thinking about time and space being interchangeable is possible if we can get into the habit of thinking of both simultaneously. I can say from practice that doing this adds considerable depth to the notion of one’s existence, especially when one is cognizant of the extent to which we are affected by our awareness of the past, present, and future.
Simone Weil said, “All the tragedies which we can imagine return in the end to the one and only tragedy: the passage of time.” Horace Mann said, “Lost, yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered for they are gone forever.” The nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that when we reach age 70 we will have recognized “the vanity and emptiness of all the splendors of the world” and that by then we will have insight “into the great poverty and hollowness of our whole existence.”
I can’t speak from experience just yet, although I’m rocketing toward age 70, at what feels like an exponential increase in speed, with a little more than a thousand days to go. All the same, I’m appreciative of Schopenhauer’s advice. Although at some level I can relate to what he is saying, I’m also confident he was wrong, at least to some degree. Birth comes with the certitude of a death sentence, which may be carried out accidentally, arbitrarily, or with what can seem like a metaphysical vengeance. Time is a relentless taskmaster as Schopenhauer recognized, and it should be noted that he did so while believing that human life is a business in which the tax of existence far outweighs the benefits. I don’t agree, but at times, and increasingly with age, I feel a tugging of sympathy for his assessment of life’s futilities. This is true especially when it comes to political aspirations, because our progress in getting along politically seems to suffer even more egregiously than our understanding of time.
The fields of psychology and neuroscience have made incredible breakthroughs in understanding the booby traps our emotions play in fracturing our politics into a left-right divide, but for all practical purposes we have not yet put this knowledge to use. Instead, we bicker as sworn enemies at worst and as spoiled adolescents at best. If we were time wise, however, we might appreciate the colossal waste of time inherent in petty politics.
When I think about the prospects of individuals standing up these days and making some kind of a qualitative political difference in the world, I can’t help, but wonder what it must have been like to be an abolitionist in 1850, trying to change popular sentiment about slavery, or a suffragette, arguing for women’s rights. One can barely imagine the hopelessness they must have felt. Still they persisted, and it’s interesting to contemplate how their concept of time might differ from ours today, absent the forces of contemporary communication media. No television, radio, or computers. The only tweeting in those days was accomplished by birds. What do you suppose sustained their optimism that their efforts might indeed make a difference? They didn’t have email, and their letters moved at a snail’s pace comparatively.
In today’s world, we are inundated with a barrage of continuous mediated experience, making it seem that our lives are much more complicated than theirs were, although it might be naïve or arrogant of us to make such an assumption. We have so much that they were missing, but the reverse is also true. They experienced hour upon hour of solitude, when it was normal and routine to be alone with one’s thoughts, and it inspired a kind of introspective thoughtfulness clearly evident in the letters they left behind. By contrast, the ubiquity of our media impedes such deliberation, requiring us to respond quickly in 140 characters or less and making simpletons of us.
Those living in earlier times engaged in political debate, and they frequently sought out opposing viewpoints instead of taking refuge in echo chambers as is so common today. It would seem that our early American ancestors were more timewise than we are, even though their communication abilities and their access to information and books were limited. Still, it appears from their correspondence that they experienced a depth or dimension of time that we do not comprehend or have access to.
It may be plain old stubbornness that prompts me to continue writing with feverish enthusiasm, since I’m not always optimistic about the future, especially with regard to politics. I have days when the idea of having any kind of positive effect on the future seems hopeless. But then, there are many more days when I feel not only that it is possible to help shape the future, but also that trying is the only sane thing left to do, especially for those of us nearing the end of our lives who care about our progeny’s future. The only way to make sense of our efforts is how we spend our time.
The pace of daily living, with the readily accepted requirement for multitasking, is a kind of postmodern lunacy in which the need to do one thing well and with great care is eclipsed by the idea that one must do many things at once, even if most of them are done poorly. As unlikely as it may seem, I think the first order of business might be to pay attention to the art of paying attention to our relationship to the past, present, and future.
How does our past affect the present and our future? How will our present affect our future? Psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd have written a wonderful book that helps put our time orientation into perspective, The Time Paradox. It comes with a simple survey that captures our perceived relationship with time, and the associated web site offers online scoring at thetimeparadox.com. It’s startling how we live day-to-day without questioning how our past may be crippling our future or how our longing for the future or the past might be diminishing the present. Of course, the reason we need to think these things through is that time is our most prized resource; without it we have nothing.
Time is more precious to me now than it has ever been. My father died in 2002. My brother, nine years my junior, died suddenly in November of 2006, and my mother and sister both died in 2008. These are existential experiences that cast a large, foreboding reminder about the shortness of time. What intrigues me now is the looming existential tug of the past, when events that occurred long ago seem temptingly preferable to the present or anything that might occur in the future.
I understand, of course, that some things we can only learn about in the doing. A 40-year-old can be told what being 50 is like, but it’s not the same as being 50, 60, 70, or beyond. So I’m not going to pretend to know why some of the folks I’ve met who are much older than I am now seem to have given up on the present and future and prefer instead to live in the past, in the refuge of wistful times when the world seemed more safe and explainable. What I do have first-hand experience of, though, is the ever-increasing appeal of the past, and I think I’m beginning to understand the power of the past to override the present. My sense is that we human beings can reach a critical mass of change, or perhaps a tipping point representing a limit to how much change we can endure before saying, “Enough for me, I’m out of here.”
I recall my grandparents in their seventies and eighties, reading newspaper obituaries aloud as their friends and acquaintances passed away. They increasingly found themselves in a more alienated world, a world of strangers and of customs that seemed to grow more absurd with each passing year. And now that my grandparents have been gone for many years, the world no longer seems like a place amenable to their very existence. In other words, they were not right for now, and the world today is not right for them. There simply has been too much change.
At some point in time this may be true for each of us, and I suspect our expectations of what to anticipate from politics may act as a bellwether for this occasion. I find the current maelstrom of what’s come to be known as Tea Party politics so disturbing that I feel at times we’ve stepped through a wormhole back to the 1850s, but without their penchant for thoughtfulness.
All of us feel the crushing urgency brought to bear by the fleeting nature of time. And yet, most of this discomfort seems to occur beneath our conscious awareness. The angst of impermanence is at the crux, the very core of all of the pain and suffering in the world. Furthermore, a lack of sufficient time fuels the political hatred that leads our species to perpetual war and genocide with enough residual anguish to ensure that conflict is forever in play.
You see, here is the irony: But not for our finite and pathetically short lives, we could overcome this existential dilemma. If, for example, we were like the universe and could live seemingly forever, the cycles of our lives could eventually provide all of the things we perceive that we can’t get enough of in the limited time we are here.
But since that is not a possibility, the best it seems we can do to ensure the maximum benefit from our limited existence is to fill our time not with the distraction of political animosity, but with finding meaning in something truly meaningful, with aspirations for achieving a sense of objectivity beyond petty politics, with passionate engagement in something worthy of passion, with caring for things worthy of care, and with the realization that to be timewise is to be and let be.
Much as I advocate embracing change and the new challenges that technology brings forth, I’m not at all sure that I won’t soon reach my own perimeter, when it seems time to throw in the towel on the future and simply dwell in the past until I am no more. But until that day, I’m going to pretend that it’s 1850, only with email and broadband, and maintain the fervent conviction that the present moment is much too precious to twitter away texting. Instead, I’m going to try to discuss things worth discussing and to go to whatever trouble is necessary to construct the better argument, even when it amounts to more than 140 characters.