- This weekend in the Christian world words like “eternal” and “forever” were frequently and fervently tossed about. What such concepts actually mean, like that of time itself, is hardly clear. Consciousness, after all, is experienced as an instantaneous timeless moment, with only memories to stitch it into a continuous flow. Yet denying time is silly, it’s used meaningfully in a common sense way, and science can measure its intervals with precision. Science, on the other hand, knows how arbitrary such measurements are, especially at quantum scale, and has absolutely no handle on “eternity.”
- A birthday week encourages thoughts of the passage of days, years and decades, and forces a hard look on exactly how I am using my conscious moments now. In an abstract, meditative way the times I have experienced almost seem more an illusion than reality. My current momentary existence is increasingly difficult to comprehend. Common sense, fortunately, intervenes, and I fall into the flow of conventional time passage without much difficulty, and remember the past, and plan the future, and go about my business. But “forever” and “jabberwocky” remain equal parts gibberish in my confused mind.
Yesterday I was a child
Last night I dreamed I’d become old
Daffodils smile yellow.
- Wild garlic is easily overlooked as a sign of spring, and more often than not once noticed in a garden is immediately weeded out. Most of the showy species around here _ forsythia, daffodils, cherries, crocuses, roses, even Norway maples _ are imports. Globalization since 1492 has overwhelmed most of the local species, especially in populated areas. But garlic and dandelions were always here, within a given meaning of always, and were used as food and presumably medicine by native Americans since they first arrived on these sandy shores.
- Some mourn the loss of what has been. Possibly the most radical element of Western mythology is the idea that time is not forever circular, but an arrow with beginning and end. Our singular lives as baby and child through aging and death are not exceptional illusion, they are truth. The idea that a forest or mountain is permanent, that seasons repeat forever, that continents or the sun will always be as they are and were, is the great falsehood. Gradually I have realized that the times through which I lived are unique, never to repeat. Perhaps I have been some cosmic form of wild garlic, but in my vanity I would rather believe I resembled a dandelion.
Blustery clear morning, I’m strolling Hecksher Park and flop down next to Bill, sitting quietly on a bench overlooking the newly rebuilt swan nest. “Been here long?” I begin.
“Depends what you mean by long, I suppose.”
“Uh, well,” so it’s going to be one of those conversations.
“By the clock, I don’t know, maybe an hour or so. Honestly I have no idea.”
“Time just passing you by?” I needle. “Nothing to do this fine day.”
“I am doing something,” he points out reasonably. “And enjoying it quite nicely until you came along.”
“What way besides the clock would you suggest makes your stay long or short?”
“Well, Wayne, from my own standpoint it was no time at all. I’ve just been suspended here as the world whirled along. I can see from your antic shallowness that you would have considered it a boringly interminable interlude of tedium.”
“Not fair. I sit sometimes …”
“Maybe. Anyway, seems a very short time to me. However, I’ve watched joggers flitting by like mayflies the whole time, flit, flit” he points out a couple rushing alongside the lake. “From their standpoint I’m as solid and everlasting as this bench.”
“And you have been lost in considering the nature of time and its elasticity and other mysterious and elemental ruminations,” I continue.
“Perhaps time has no meaning,” he intones like a TV guru, “but you wouldn’t know.”
“OK, I can take a hint,” I say, getting up. “Boy, you must have gotten up on the wrong side of bed this morning. You’re in some kind of mood.”
“Mood? Mood?” he stares at the sky a moment. “That’s a whole different question …”
- Warm breezes bring clouds and rain, bright sun accompanies chill. In between it’s nice to sit and watch the water blown about with casual gusts, as geese, ducks, seagulls, and a few lazy migrants cavort. One or two boats are ready to go, owners anxious to take advantage of any spectacular day that might arrive.
- I sit and think maybe I should be doing more. Upon a time I would write, or draw, or paint, or fill my mind with plans and hopes. My joints are happy to just sit and do nothing, reminding me they are no longer 21. By afternoon, various muscles will join that chorus. My brain tries to convince itself that it is as good as ever, which works until I try to remember calculus or chemistry. So I sit, I gaze, the world spins. Time suspends even as it rushes by.
- Western Civilization for the last two thousand years has sought the underlying simplicity of everything. A confusion of gods and goddesses, for example, were simplified into one. Since at least the Renaissance there were further attempts to locate the prime mover, the first cause, unifying mathematic “laws”, the building blocks of matter and energy.
- Much of that worked and created a more prosperous and even more magical world. Understanding how all life on earth is related or pondering deep secrets of universal gravity in no way diminishes our appreciation of all that is. We confidently track the past back to a big bang, we confidently predict what will happen to our solar system in billions of years. Entropic Time itself would appear to be one of the simplest rules of our cosmos.
- But. Finding the underlying “simple” rules do not negate the fact that we exist in an infinitely complex state, surrounded by infinitely complex systems. Describing the past and predicting the future does not help us understand our momentary consciousness. Time is “just there” but we truly have no greater conception of its nature than any five year old.
- I think on this now because our society is sliding into another belief system where simple solutions should fix everything. Simple morality, simple taxes, simple savagery, simple government. Few want to point out that social systems, like our bodies themselves, are complex unities. For fifty years we believed that simply giving people everywhere more goods and services would lead to a simple golden age. It has not. Worse than that, simplistic political and/or religious fanatics are ready to tear down all that has been achieved.
- I meditate on the nature of time. Simple, uncontrolled, necessary, arrogant time, which sometimes drifts by without notice, sometimes presses me into panic, sometimes drags forever until it is suddenly gone. Whatever essential time may be, my experience of it is about as complex as anything encountered in my life. If I ignore that great fact, my days are in trouble.
- Simple can be beautiful. When simple is declared absolute it can also be deadly.
- Time may be simple, may be complex, may be the most unknowable thing in the universe. What matters is the instantaneous slice called a moment. Perhaps there are many moments, but we only actually ever experience one, which is now. Now as I write is a dark drizzly day, rapidly becoming colder, filled with mysteries and beauties which I could never describe nor enumerate.
- Philosophers have spent lives cogitating on exactly what and why with no conclusion. Scientists measure and tag everything else, but time remains elusive. The nature of time is a rock upon which reason shatters. And thus my elastic time moves along _ this week rushed past, this afternoon crawls slowly, and my entire previous life seems as instantaneous as this keystroke.