Apr 15, 2023
“I need have no fear of time, that ‘great eraser’. I don’t live because of the past or for the future. I live by and for the present.”
“Hello.” (Psst: It’s the 5th century BCE calling.) “How can I help? Ok, understood, and thanks for checking in.”
Some guys from Ancient Greece just called. They want to know how we’re coming along with their ‘problem’. They’ve certainly been patient, so I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s been almost 100 years since anyone seriously looked at their issue.
It seems that 2,500 years ago a bunch of guys (sic) began asking, how is it that there is both motion and rest in the world, change and continuity, novelty and tradition, etc.
The last person to take a serious look at this was British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Process and Reality, Whitehead’s magnum opus and a crowning achievement of Western systematic philosophy, quoted a popular verse from the Anglican hymnal to illustrate the paradox:
“Abide in me/Fast falls the eventide.”
After Whitehead, the matter lay mostly dormant…until the ‘60s. (Of course… the ‘60s! Nothing slept through the ‘60s.) English folk-rock singer and songwriter Sandy Denny and American music icon Judy Collins expressed the problem this way:
‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’
Let’s listen in!
Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving. But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
With this opening verse, Denny and Collins introduce what will be a master class in Time. Their song will reference four competing concepts of time: (1) linear time, (2) duration, (3) rhythm, and (4) atemporality, the total absence of time, i.e., eternity.
We seem to be immersed in linear time. Things that are not come to be and things that are come to be not. Heraclitus: “You can’t step in the same river twice.” Lewis Carroll: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again” (i.e., couldn’t reverse linear time).
Most often when we refer to ‘time’ in conversation, we mean linear time: I’m getting older by the minute! But that is only one side of the story. There are three other perfectly valid notions that fit securely under time’s conceptual umbrella.
(1) Linear time is like a straight line, bidirectional and infinite, or perhaps a ‘ray’, unidirectional and infinite. (2) Duration is like a ‘line-segment’. It has an origin and an end point, and we are mainly concerned with the distance in between. (3) Rhythm is like a circle, or a spiral, or a sine wave: what goes around, comes around. Karma. Nature’s cycles: the seasons of the year, the tides, the phases of the moon, the precession of the equinoxes. (4) Eternity is like a point: it’s real, but it has no temporal extension. If things that are ‘eternal’ have any internal structure, that structure unfolds along a dimension other than spacetime.
Denny and Collins begin with linear time. The birds are leaving. Somehow, “they know it’s time for them to go.” It is, and they do. Nature demands it…and the birds play out their appointed role in the cosmic dance.
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming; I have no thought of time.
Contrasting herself with the birds, the artist lives in a dream-like state. While the birds “know it’s time for them to go”, hers is a state in which there is “no thought of time”, just as there is no concept of time in the pre-conscious mind.
Sidebar: One of the defining criteria of art is that the artist is in close contact with ‘what is’ (e.g., nature) with minimal mediation and distortion from ‘civilization’. We sometimes refer to people in close contact with ‘what is’ as being ‘in the zone’.
By contrast, for the engineering mind, everything is bound up with space and time. ‘To be’ is to occupy a defined region of the spacetime plane.
According to the logic of linear time, things that are not come to be and things that are come not to be. But where do these things come from in the first place, and where do they go when they are done being? (And what does a question like that even mean?)
Because no one knows ‘where the time goes’, and because the phenomenal world seems hopelessly time-bound, no one knows what becomes of such entities and events once they are no longer present.
In the 1950s, a TV show called Howdy Doody was a big part of ‘kid culture’ in the US. The show would always begin with the emcee (Buffalo Bob) calling out, “What time is it?”; and kids lucky enough to be in that day’s ‘Peanut Gallery’ would dutifully respond in unison, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!”
‘Howdy Doody Time’ meant that time was suspended. For 30 minutes, a kid could descend into the timeless, preconscious world of make believe, free of ‘real-world concerns’ like homework, chores, and parental nagging.
So, “What time is it?” Today’s adult version of yesterday’s Peanut Gallery might respond, “It’s Present Time!” (Ram Dass: “Be Here Now!”)
What other time could there be? We think and talk a lot about the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, but we never actually experience either (except as shadows in the form of memories, dreams or inertial momenta). We always and only live in the ‘present’.
Sidebar: A defining characteristic of a ‘shadow’ is that it is not the thing itself.
So, where does the time go? It doesn’t go anywhere. If it isn’t here and now, it just isn’t. And if it isn’t now, it’s not going to pop up at some other time in some other place. Being is one and done. It’s a single shot: you either are or you are not. Being takes place only at the buzzer. If you are, you are here, now; and if not…
Events bound to the flow of linear time may also be assumed to go nowhere. Once no longer present, it is just as though these things never were. That’s what makes time the great eraser, the mortal enemy of life, of being, of purpose, of meaning.
Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving. Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go.
Nature is not perturbed by the processes that unfold within it. It depends upon them. There is no sense of loss. Everything is as it is, as it should be, ‘just right’. One is reminded of words from Ecclesiastes (popularized in the 1960s by The Byrds):
“There is an appointed time for everything… A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to sow and a time to reap… A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them… A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away.”
Sidebar: Notice how the wisdom-poet converts the passive voice process of loss (“a time to die…a time to lose”) into the active voice process of “casting away”. We cast away so that we may seek; we lose so that we may find.
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving. I do not count the time.
The artist does not ‘think of leaving’. To ‘think of leaving’ is to position oneself inside time and to bind oneself to time’s peculiar linear progression…and so to self-immolate. If we are to be (i.e., not erased), we must not ‘think of leaving’.
Sidebar: Not all artists paint, write, compose, etc. Be the artist of your own life. Live presently! “The Bali have no art; they do everything well.”
And I am not alone while my love is near me, I know it will be so until it’s time to go.
I am not a bird; I am not the deserted shore. Am I then doomed to be merely an isolated observer of natural processes? A lonely scientist? A frustrated anthropologist? Fortunately, no!
There is ‘process’ that is naturally appropriate for us humans: It’s not thought, but love! Love is the antithesis of time. Time is the great eraser, but love dissolves time. Rock-Paper-Scissors.
It has often been said that love makes time stand still. More accurately, love does not impact time directly; love is a process that occurs outside of time. When I love, I go on autopilot. I give myself over to nature’s timeless rhythms. And so for me, too, eventually it will be ‘time to go’. But I will not discover that using a watch or a calendar; it will discover me and take me entirely unawares.
The birds know when ‘it’s time for them to go’, and as far as we know, they don’t mind. I don’t know either, but if I did, I’d ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. Love binds us to one another; it blots out linear time…'until it’s time to go'. Love knows only two states: ‘here/now’ and ‘time to go’.
Is this ‘time to go’ what we call ‘death’? Yes and no. It’s not the terrible annihilation that may be the fate of time-bound entities but the peaceful fulfillment of nature’s purposes.
So, come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again, I have no fear of time. For who knows how my love grows? And who knows where the time goes?
In the arena of time, things appear and disappear, wax and wane; but do they ever just simply ‘be’? In time, things are past…or future…but never present. The present is at best an infinitesimal point. Therefore, present events must have vanishingly short durations, durations many, many orders of magnitude below the duration required for conscious awareness. And yet, I believe I am conscious. I am even conscious of being conscious.
In timeless nature, on the other hand, everything that exists, exists in the present (and only in the present). As long as it exists, it is its own present; and as long as it is present, it exists. There is no waxing and waning, but there is process; process in the present is called ‘growth’. Therefore, love, which is always and only present, grows. Growth replaces waxing and waning. And what grows endures.
Because my love grows, I need to have no fear of time, that ‘great eraser’. I don’t live because of the past or for the future. I live by and for the present. Love has no cause; it is sui generis. Likewise, it is its own end (telos). It exists because of itself (causa sui) and it exists for itself (pour soi). It is its own raison d’etre.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes concerning the Eschaton (the end of time): So, three things remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.
Faith is the shadow of the past experienced in the present. Hope is the shadow that the future casts on the present. But love is the present; it is experience; it is being. It has no past or future. While it is, it just is. It is where the time goes.
Love is a conservative force. It brings time to a standstill. It creates entities of indefinite duration. Yet love is also revolutionary. “It stands in the hallway; it blocks up the hall” (Bob Dylan). Love rebels against life’s ‘getting and spending’ (Wordsworth), against the inexorable process of ‘growth and decay’. It undermines every established structure including the uber-structure of spacetime itself. In a world where change is the steady state, permanence is rebellion.
Ever been in love? Were you anxious for things to change? Didn’t think so! You wanted it to last forever and for a time at least, it seemed as though it would do just that. Love is the pinnacle of life. It’s all downhill from there. So be the King of your Castle, not an Eddie Haskell.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.