It’s About Time
presented January 28th, 2018
I’ve only recently gained a more genuinely visceral appreciation of the limits to my time wrapped in this mortal coil, and largely as a result of having turned 50 last year: I had to accept that I could no longer double my age and readily imagine that I’d still be around. In other words, I realized that I’m closer to the end than to the beginning.
This observation — that I am, if I’m lucky, half done – got me thinking about time. How I perceive time is how I perceive my life. Is time like water, and so it flows? Is it like money, and so we invest time, save time, spend time, waste time and buy time? Is it a heavy weight…so it sometimes drags, or is it airy and light, which is why it can seem to fly? Or is it a type of scenery that we move through, with the past behind us and future before us?
The more I thought about my commonsense notions of time, the less common they seemed and the less sense they made. Like a low-resolution digital picture, when viewed quickly, and from a distance, the concept of time isn’t problematic in the least. But move in close, inspect it carefully, and it pixellates into incoherence.
Since my layperson’s notions of time seemed both inadequate and contradictory, I wondered what scientists might have to say about why and how we mark the passage of time.
In practical terms, organisms mark time in order to coordinate events. The simplest forms of life evolved only because certain chemical reactions happened in a particular proximity within space and time. Part of the reason it took more than two billion years, fully half of the Earth’s existence so far, for life to emerge, is that those reactions depended entirely on synchronicity. But once these protocells began to mark time in ways that were synchronized enough with each other that the necessary reactions began to happen, not by chance, but systematically, cell-based life was away to the races.
From organelles within a cell, to cells within an organ, to organs within a complex, self-aware being, the notion of time as a coordinating mechanism carries up through to social interactions. After all, much of the meaning that I get from coming every Sunday arises from the fact that all of you are here at the same time. Show up an hour early or late, and it’s a very different experience.
Music is perhaps the best example of the importance, and the magic, of keeping time together, of creating a shared sense of time’s passage, for without that there is no unison, no harmony. In the case of music, when we keep time we’re actually sharing it.
So much for biology. What of physics? Einstein’s theory of relativity posits that time is actually just another dimension of space…hence the “space time continuum,” or just “spacetime.”
For me, the most difficult-to-accept implication of the idea of spacetime is that there is no such thing as “motion”. Motion, after all, means than object is here, then here, then here…the same thing, in different places over time. But in spacetime, every point exists simultaneously and continuously. And so an object does not move…rather, there are multiple events, each existing at different points in spacetime.
The implication is that our everyday notions of past, present and future are merely constructs of the human mind – in Einstein’s words, a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Think of it this way: all the different points in space exist at the same time and all the time. Similarly, then, all the different points in time exist in the same space, and all the time. They are simply points in spacetime, rather than merely points in space.
If that made sense to you, then I’m hopeful that after service today you can explain it to me.
I simply can’t get my head around the idea that “all time exists at once,” even though I’m a native English language speaker, and I understood all the individual words I just used. I even understood the sentence I formed by stringing them altogether. But I have no idea what concept that sentence is attached to. I feel as though I’m holding a string that trails up into the air, but I can’t see the balloon holding it up.
The true nature of time, I think, is one of those things that we cannot understand, and even if we could, we’d be unable to live our lives according to that knowledge. Whatever time truly is, I can’t but treat time as anything other than how we all experience it, every day.
In short, even though my commonsense notions of time are certainly wrong, I can’t escape them.
Perhaps, then, I can examine them more carefully.
Consider first the notion of time “flying”. When we are engrossed in something, time can seem to pass by very quickly indeed.
This has happened to me when writing. I’d be up at 4:30am hammering away at the keyboard, and when I’ve been lucky enough to be in the zone – the technical term is “flow” – I won’t realize that time is passing at all until Annabel’s alarm goes off at 7.
But hang on: I don’t feel that time is flying during those two and half hours. Rather, in that state of mind I stopped noticing the passage of time entirely. It was only when the spell was broken that I then had the experience of time having flown.
And I’ve had it go the other way, too. Charlotte’s first piano examination was at the Adamson Estate on the lake. It was a perfect summer day. She was in a frilly pink dress, a little nervous and holding my hand. I dropped her off in the old, but well-maintained house with its sun-dappled wainscoting and creaky floors, and went outside to wait. I could see Charlotte through a second-floor window, and by some miracle that June morning, the only sounds were the birds, the swells on the lake breaking against the shore, and Charlotte playing her scales, arpeggios, and simplified arrangements of Mozart and Bach and Brahms.
I could spend more time describing that experience than it took to experience it. The density, variety and intensity of the emotions I felt were such that, when it was over and I took note of the time elapsed, I was astonished that only 20 minutes had gone by. What had seemed, in those moments, like a magical afternoon, had taken, in fact, less time than had been required to drive there.
At least…that’s how I remember it.
How is it that being “outside of time” can have such different effects – both compressing and elongating our retrospective sense of time’s passage?
Here’s my best guess.
When I say I’m standing “here”, am I referring to this spot behind the lectern? Or to this wonderful hall? Or to Mississauga? Canada? The Earth itself? I’m not wrong with any one of them. The remarkable thing is that what I mean by “here” is typically obvious enough from context, and we tend to have a tacit and shared understanding of what we’re referring to.
The same can usually be said of “now”: it’s ill defined, but entirely useful. “What are you doing now?” is both as vague and as well-formed a question as “what are you doing here?”.
When time telescopes – either extended periods passing in an instant, or an instant seeming to have lasted much longer — I think it’s because our subjective experience of “now” has been altered.
When we reflect upon a period of time that seems to have flown, I think it’s because we experienced an “extended now”. That is, we note far fewer “nows” than we normally would over a given period.
When time seems to have been frozen, we note far more “nows” than we normally would over a given period.
In the first instance, the frame rate of our internal movie has become a single extended exposure; in the latter, the frame rate has increased dramatically.
In both cases, we are aware of these shifts only when we return to “normal”, whatever that is for us, and reflect on what has happened.
But now I’m confused again.
Do we want to feel that time is “flying by”, or do we want it to stop it altogether? Both notions have positive and negative connotations.
It can be exhilarating to realize that hours have passed while you were “in the zone,” but terrifying to reflect on something that happened twenty years ago and feel like it was just yesterday…and that somehow you’ve missed out on or wasted the intervening interval. Losing an hour or two is a virtue, but when a decade seems to have disappeared, it can be panic-inducing. We don’t want to look back and wonder where the time went.
So…we want to savor every moment, right? Except…being overly-aware of every little thing is what drudgery is made of. When each tick of the clock is clanging chime of doom, when every cough and shuffle during an awkward social interaction seems an eternity…who wants that?
Here’s where I’ve landed.
Have you heard the saying, “the days are long, but the years are short”?
To me, that expression captures a tendency to trudge through daily life, annoyed at the terrible driver in the lane beside us, frustrated that we can’t find the kitchen scissors, nonplussed at a teenager’s ability to walk out of the house looking like that. Attention to those events is unavoidably wearisome, and it makes time drag in the present, making the days very long indeed.
But because those events have no real significance, they don’t set up a milestone of any kind. We’re not, as they say in yoga class, “present” for those experiences – they pass by as though we had succumbed to the temptation of Sandler’s magic remote, and so seem to have flown by in retrospect, making the years seem inexplicably short.
So maybe I want the days to be short, but the years to be long.
Ironically, the experiences that make the most of time are the ones that ignore it most successfully. It needn’t be a life-changing event that transports me…I just have to let work, or a chore, anything…engage me, to be present for my own activities, whatever they may be, and not worrying about what’s next. That makes for short days.
But where shortening the days arises from attending to whatever comes your way, lengthening the years requires a very different approach. Creating the punctuating mileposts that prevent the decades from compressing into a blur means creating opportunities – in vacations, outings, evenings with friends, for that matter — for the surprises, adventures and even adversities that are the scaffolding that give shape to our past.
None of that is enough however. Time seems to have flown, or dragged, only in retrospect. To me, that means that our sense of time is our sense of memory.
That is potentially very significant. Just as you’re always “here”, it is always “now”. The past does not exist, except insofar as we have our present memories of the past. As our memories change, so does, for all practical purposes, our past…and worse, as those memories fade, our past disappears…our life gets shorter to the extent that we no longer recall it.
As a result, the more readily I can invoke, or evoke, a more complete picture – literal or metaphorical – of my past, the more multi-dimensional my life can seem to me, right now. I don’t find myself asking “where did the time go.”
In practical terms, that means being able readily to call to mind – in stories told at dinner, in photographs on the walls, in home movies watched for no other reason than it’s Tuesday – events that were of no particular moment, but mattered because they were a moment. Decorating Christmas trees, frolicking in the pool, picking apples, birthday parties.
Biology tells us that time matters to the extent it is shared. And physics tells us that all of time is one eternal now.
So I guess I’m trying, in my own way, to take both observations as seriously as I can.
I try deliberately to ignore time’s passage in order to create an elongated now; to focus on specific moments to create a rapid succession of “nows”; to create, preserve, and readily and frequently recall, with others, a shared past, right now. And since the future doesn’t exist, either – there is only our current expectations and hopes for tomorrow – then to the extent that I can share those, as well, my entire life – past, present, and future – exists in the only way past, present and future ever can exist, which is right here, right now.
If that sounds like a string help up by a balloon you can’t see…well, honestly, I can’t really see it either.
But the string is staying up. And it’s the best I can do…at least…for now.