What Do the Passing Moments Mean?
Time captivates us in two distinct ways – as an unending process of change, what we might call ‘natural time’ and use to measure the length of a life, and as a series of repetitions, both natural and perceptual, whereby we correlate the Earth’s orbit and spin, its seasons and days, with the arbitrary ways in which we impose and mark off weeks and years. Just as history is both a string of events and our perceptions of them, so too is time at once objective and subjective, a measure and a myth by which we live. At base it offers precision and from that comes regularity, which we convert into regulation, or willing adherence to softly spoken rules of life.
Thou shalt not dismiss the Gregorian calendar; thou shalt not sleep by day and work by night; and so on.
Our experience of time’s duality is almost always conservative. Not only do we encase ourselves within a series of authoritarian dictates – and few ever escape the grind of temporal convention – but we wish to freeze things as they are, to slow change, to preserve the moment. These actions and reactions are always, and by necessity, located in the utopia of the present moment, where time is experienced as either memory or expectation, always gone or about to come, never quite happening enough.
Consider, for instance (and the etymology of ‘instance’ fittingly reveals an impatience with time), the year’s end now approaching. Of course, it’s always approaching, but we allow ourselves to think more of it – and more urgently of it – when the days turn cold or hot, depending on where we live. Aside from regular holidays (for some) and a sense of religious fulfilment (for many but by no means all), what will be fundamentally different between next week and the week after that? In a strictly temporal sense, the Earth will have completed one full orbit of the Sun, but that could be measured from any point in the cycle.
All we really have is a willing enslavement to a particular way of measuring time, an agreement that something largely intangible has changed, somehow. So the precision really isn’t as precise as we might imagine it to be – just as Einstein perceived that time was relative to position and movement, how we measure it is relative to how we perceive it – and not everyone is really sure exactly how that happens.
So, allow me to end on something of a coda, a little lesson in temporality impinged. Last week I bought two books that were copyrighted, or rather will have had been copyrighted, in 2009. The publisher anticipated slightly later sales, but my purchase precipitated a crisis in verbal tense. Time and again, it’s a puzzling world.