Tripping over Time: Why it’s inscrutable

time

I’m utterly fascinated by time. Specifically, its passage and how difficult, no, impossible, it is to comprehend. I think about time a lot. Time is a simple, linear, straightforward concept that trips me up every time.

Are you comfortable with it? Try this: stare at an atomic clock for three minutes. You’ll see that there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the tick-tock passage of time. But think about getting through the first week of a new job or waiting in a doctor’s office or for the first day of school. Time slows WAY down.

C.S. Lewis on time:

“The Future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

time
C.S. Lewis

Lewis wrote of our inability to grasp time in his Reflections on the Psalms: “We are so little reconciled to time that we are even astonished at it. ‘How he’s grown!’ we exclaim, ‘How time flies!’ as though the universal form of our experience were again and again a novelty. It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.”

We struggle to grasp time passage because we weren’t created for it. It’s linear and limited; we’re fashioned for forever. We’re trapped in its constraints just as we’re trapped in our fragile bodies.

We know that time passes at the same rate regardless of how we spend it. But IT NEVER STOPS. We’ve all heard the expression, “Time marches on.” What a sobering thought. Sometimes it seems as if you can slow time to a wonderfully comfortable pace while at the beach at 10 a.m. on a weekday with only a few lifeguards, some hopeful seagulls, the bubbling surf and a good book.

It’s about perspective

I arrived at Navy boot camp on a balmy Florida night around midnight. They processed us, formed us into companies, assigned us “racks” (Navy-speak for bunks), had us fill out tons of paperwork and then finally, two hours later, led us to a sleepy barracks.

I climbed into my rack thinking how incredibly long the day had seemed. Up at 5 a.m., waiting in the processing station, then at the airport, flying to Orlando, riding a shuttle to boot camp … you’d think with all the activity it would have flown by. Not so. Everything was new. And I’d just been baptized in the Navy way—“hurry up and wait.”

time
pj in boot camp, November 1986

I fell asleep and what seemed like five minutes later some crazy man was banging a trash can, calling us names and yelling for us to get up. I blearily looked at my watch—4 a.m.—only two hours after I’d lain down. Two hours had felt like five minutes.

See what I mean? It was like the clock slowed and then sped up. Like in the movies when they make the hands spin.

Ever catch yourself trying to slow a wonderful moment? At that special, “timeless,” instant, you realize how much you’re enjoying life and how quickly the moment morphs into a memory. Oops—there it goes. Better take pictures.

Spaghetti monster

I worked at an advertising agency with a guy who was a bit of a Bohemian. I’ll call him John. John grew up as a hippie with hippie parents; he wore the same clothes to work each day and claimed that God is a spaghetti monster in the sky. And he made fun of people who think God is not a spaghetti monster in the sky.

John was for legalizing marijuana (and drugs in general) polygamy and other illegal activities. He was for whatever people want to do “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” He lived for the day. No rules. No worries.

I’m not saying John’s philosophy is ALL wrong. I think he’s half right. There’s something incredibly freeing about taking each day as it comes and living in the moment. But when one lives in the moment with little thought for others or for the future, does he truly live a life worth living?

Carpe diem

Another guy, I’ll call him Harry, loved to get John to talk about God as the spaghetti monster in the sky. I think Harry longed to live like a Bohemian, but didn’t have the guts. He was more like George Costanza. He lived vicariously through John (but only when it was safe to do so).

What do John and Harry have to do with anything? This: Seizing each day and living in the moment is the way to go, but, it seems to me, only if it’s a lived with forever in mind. It took me a long time to get this. But I think, in the end, everyone does. Even the atheists.

If you trip over time, too, and/or enjoy this article, please let me know. I want to hear from you.

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