Friday, 6 April 2001

Time On Our Hands (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIX No.1 Spring 2001


TIME ON
OUR HANDS

By Andrew Porter



Questions about time tend to create the embryos of their own answers. Is time's rate relative until universalized? Will the present always be subject to the past as the future is to the present? Things move in a direction, so does time? Is time a formation of intuition, as Kant believed, or an idealization of existing relations between things, as Leibniz defined it? How could absolute time 'flow,' as Newton said, without relation to any moving thing or any motion whatsoever?

Today I was holding a pencil that had been given to me, which had a plastic hourglass sand-timer on the end in place of an eraser. The little vessel was only an inch high, with bright red micro-sand in it, which only took about seven seconds to run from whichever was the uppermost compartment to the lower one. On the side of the pencil was printed: 'Times Up'. I turned the hourglass pencil over in my hand as I talked on the phone, unconscious of the lapse of time or that it was the exceedingly narrow waist that made its measure.

The tiny grains whidded from one end to the other by gravity's rule-but then, unexpectedly, little red grains started coming out of the 'glass,' out the bottom, and I saw its constitution was broken. Out of the blue the red left its seat, depending on how I turned it. If I tilted the hourglass away from the break it would approximate its time-run back through the scant neck, but the grains made a concerted effort to spill out.

Time as there measured had lost its structure and the red dust on my desk marked a different moment-or no present, rather, that was fathomable. Time is more estimable than this, I thought, and dropped the thing in the wastebasket. The hourglass symbolized for me the dependency of time, or at least of its calculation. Without a sound and reliable structure it spills out, unpredictable even to itself, and wholly unappreciable to us. And without turning it over, as we might do with eggs, it doesn't have a chance to mark its significance, to pour as it is supposed to. Its structure, concretely manifest, is important-it was not made to drain out while we are or are not looking.

Thus we should give sufficient weight and respect to the present instant. As we have it to work with, we can honor its intimacy with eternity, as well as that larger sphere's intimacy with it. If we think about it, there is something short and long about the present instant. We seem most in possession of it, not when we forget about or annul the past and future, but when we bring them full, like baskets of fruit, to the table, without our attention being on them.

But the lines are wavy and particle-like-blurred, if you like. The present is always packed with the clarity of something that is not a nanosecond long. We imagine correctly that an entire life could be the present instant. Yet the flash of the present instant separates it from everything else; it is experienced as a Now, shoving it off from the bulk that went before it. The past is a hulk, which does not have the photon electricity of the present instant. The present says of the past, 'Kick it back, now the fiery fuse sends itself away from that block!' In a small or large space, we cannot get away from the impression that there is something short and long about the present instant.

How long can the liveness of the present be? It is the instantaneously inclusive nature of the Now that pulls us up short and seems like a revelation, but such a quality really means 'timeless,' and has the flexibility to be short or long. The present is quick, quicker even than time. It can jump over time, come up behind it, run circles around it, and play with it head on. The instant that we think the present is short, we fall into a situation that makes it so.

Is that old and new thing called the present built on the coral reef of the past, or does the present just happen to leave its trail that shows the previous living motion? However broad you want to make the present, it does follow on the heels of itself in a sense, not on the heels of a past as solidified. Hardened lava is not hot magma. The present develops, grows, and burgeons out of itself, leaving behind, as far as being is concerned, nothing at all. And yet something is built; there is a progression. The front of the flash flood roars down the dry riverbed, but the absolute newness and difference of the water, like the present, has its roaring impetus from like waters, not from 'the past.'

All relations and interdependencies of being establish relations and interdependencies of time. The star we see now is connected continuously with the star then, when the light we receive was sent, and though the light sent now does not touch us, the energy between the near and distant body refers, perhaps not so obliquely, to an organic unity. Time seems to be particular only if we are a party to isolation, which, we have good evidence, takes the reality away. Motions are not in a vacuum; because they are intimate they intimate that there is a joint and comprehensive time.

The present instant, then, might well be defined as eternity on the scale of being, and being on the scale of eternity. In no time at all it can show itself to be immense and tiny. A moment ago it existed; in this moment it exists; is there anything in between? Was there anything in the interim? Moments of tranquillity let us experience its nature, which is certain but cannot be pinned down. We are at times the focus of its subatomic and cosmic quickness. We are quick because of it.

What, if we believe this, is the eternal? The eternal, we might say, is the subsuming of the past and the present into a continual present. This single, continuous present cuts across time; it ropes the past and the current moment into a monadic whole. A mayfly experiences its whole day as a present, but within the span of its day there is a past and present for its being. The span of time called a day has a past, present, and future, given any being within its parameters. But eternity is that span from the forefront of being, back through its being. It is a past and present as one, and thus has nothing to do with time. A person may live eighty years, but at any given forefront of life, eternity would be a present that had duration from that advance-point back some span of being. The life, however, cannot be divided by the time-compartments of past and present. Eternity can be called a duration of being that is a full present without past, and without the divisions and constraints of time and time language. We think of the present as an infinitesimal blip, but a present that lasts through the past and includes 'the present' without subdivision is the reality of eternity.

Eternity can last a minute or a hundred centuries. That which spans across time and actually retains it as a present is eternal. Must being experience that spanning in order for the eternal to be genuine? The future is open, and for being cannot be entailed in the eternal. For the mayfly or the Maker of the universe, eternity is an expansion and growth of the present into the near or distant past, transforming that history of being into a patulous present, conjoining disjunctions into valid oneness.

What does this mean for us? Most people feel very squeezed for time in modern society. They feel that society has certain expectations for them, and they have lost their expectations for themselves. Modern western societies, like the factories of old, cannot run unless many keep up the pace, but the cost is rising, in health, life, and happiness. Some have come to realize that the great capital of life is time, not money. Affluence has no advantage in gaining its possessors the luxury of time: they do without it just like everybody else. The squeeze for time has become acute, and both the individual and society suffers where and when the bind is daily reenacted.

I wonder what time-lapse cinematography would show if in concept you ran the history of life through it-how would our day look so speeded up? Meetings, walking, going to the post office, etc.-we would look most active, faster than the clouds overhead, gesticulating and jittering back and forth-each of us a fool, and yet a fool with a purpose. If we were filmed in time-lapse, like a seedling growing, a flower flowering, or a set of tadpoles hatching, what would be revealed that our normal pace could not reveal? The day would lose its meaning, as would our grace-it would be a disarticulation and a farce.

This is suggestive of the fact that the more we speed up our day, the more we lose our chance for meaning, the less life is articulated, and the less interesting it is to observe. We do not in time-lapse see ourselves; we do not, in speeding up our time, see our optimal selves. We and the elements of our environment are a mere flying then, without reflection or poise. We are a joke. But return our day to the natural pace and you take more time in than you did before. You have made time-lapse lapse, and you have re-mobilized the gait appropriate to the value of life. You can take the long view, see things in proportion without a distortion of time, capture a bigger chunk of what human time is about, and see the growth concurrent with it as you are there, within the scene.

It is funny that when time is least slack we are most remiss, and when it is lax and loose we are most rigorous, even religious, in our attentions. The more we learn, the more we see that time is the most elastic of things. Try and find one for whom it does not flow, fast or slow. It is like a waterfall over which we will be carried, and we decide the size of our bark. We make what we can of life in the moving eddies, gathering our size and thus our speed. Then we embark on the faster journey with the roar just ahead of us, seeing that edge as we become a part of it, with a glimmer that time and eternity meet at the long intersection all of us in the flow make as we start our plunge. If we fall at the same speed despite our weight, it is a certain kind of physics. If we and the water fall at exactly the same rate, that is another kind of physics. Time will accommodate them all. But at whatever speed, we have felt the roar, unsure whether we are surrounded by or actually are the liquid, ready to meet what we are becoming. We are always before a falls and always in one, but in fact it is all luxuriant, a flow of rich liquidy life, finding time to suit us, as we, so buoyant, suit ourselves.

It is true that sometimes we spin like a crocodile to wrench off a meal from time, and sometimes time is the spinning crocodile to wrench a meal of us. It comes down to whether, as zebras crossing a deep river in Kenya, we can be at the right angle so time's jaws cannot get a hold of us. We may see waves of attack, but our strength is in keeping our neck down and not turning our throat in the direction of the jaws. The river carries us downstream from where we hoped to land, but as long as we land, that's all we care about.

Our relationship with time is a question of a foot one way or the other. We say we've seized our opportunities, but often our opportunities have seized up. Each of us is a zebra, and to striped time a crocodile as well. What happened to the land under our hooves that seemed so forever sure? What does it mean that other crocs baked and died in the cracked mud? We're in a rush now, a thick surge, but can we buck the idea that it's to our disadvantage, whether we are zebra or crocodile? Is there something in this river that is life, even with the hatred of death? The river trial is wave next to wave next to wave. The peculiar structures of each make the vehement conjunction. And if we were wise, we would not want it any other way. Time, like the croc, has survived for tens of millions of years; time is also as short as the bray of a zebra. We have narrow slits in our eyes or large dark eyes between black nose and mane; what do we see to do? Is our triumph the quick avoidance or the eon-long clutch? It becomes acute quick. The river has brought us together and separated us as well.

More often, time is the beach that we walk on. It is bordered by dunes of moments that rise and fall on one side and by the eternal pounding surf on the other. We range along the sands of time, leaving our footprints behind us, though they are washed away by new waves that roll in from the uninterrupted ocean and thinly reach their foam ceaselessly toward the dunes. Our footprints may crisscross with others, but we cannot retrace our steps. We can only make new ones. The beach itself is narrow and all sand, with its past in stone and its future in glass; but in the present we feel the sand between our toes. In our hands we hold sand dollars that we must spend; we cannot save them. Each grain of the beach is a part of the whole vast unbelievable span, forever footprinted and blurred by the tides of change. And though we and our efforts do not last, the steady beach curves on, as real in the beginning of our walk as it is in the end.

We admit, a bit under duress, that time is of the essence. As we look out to the vanishing point of the beach, we see forever and a day meet and mingle in the haze. It is the place we are walking to, but in the meantime we have a fair exchange for our sand dollars and we are kings, and queens, of every castle we build.

Plunged into our own measurement of time, we tend not to explore, or understand if we do, the range of time beyond us. We know time's passage is relative, but seem to be more comfortable in the middle kingdom both of the present and of the range of speed with which time can progress. But if we work to acquaint ourselves with the 'range' of time-and take that plunge-how far can we go? That is an endeavor worth embarking on, and though it will necessarily take time, we may find that there is nothing else necessary in the process.


Address for corespondence: aporter@dublinschool.org .

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