The artificiality of time has been sinking in lately. My thick books reveal that time is too thin. My achy knees assert that time is out of joint. You may think these are dubious indicators of time’s sham nature, but time is broken.
At the very least, our experience of time is dysfunctional. This may mean (although I speculate here) that it was not meant to register with us at all. Time is told by clocks; it would be better denoted by their absence. “Timepieces” hang strangely on our walls, attesting to lives that were not meant to be partitioned.
How else should we explain the universal dismay and bafflement that surrounds aging? As if grayness had come unexpectedly, although it has been going on (like clockwork) since the world began. Likewise, in the pursuit of knowledge, and the understanding behind it, who hasn’t had the creeping sensation that to master his subject will take a lifetime, maybe several? The feeling intensifies if one has multiple areas of interest.
You spend a lifetime on Marine Biology, only to learn that it will take two more. Or you set out to nail down the basics of “wisdom” (like Solomon), only to realize that wisdom lies beyond you all the time, watching your wanderings with amusement—you have yet to reach her doormat.
I read a book, set it down, and eye it with puzzlement, knowing that its full message still eludes me. As Ian Barbour writes, “One never finishes a book—one simply abandons it eventually.” My shelves are lined with abandoned books that I have read repeatedly.
At every bend in the road, Time springs out to surprise us. “How tired I am!” we say, disgust mingled with inexplicable surprise. “How you’ve grown,” relatives intone over and over with seeming stupidity—but their puzzlement is genuine. “How times flies…” we mutter at the end of an enchanted weekend. We make silly remarks in our efforts to accustom ourselves to finite time, to soften the discomfort of its contours.
We measure our lives in time, but it should be the other way around. Time should be at our mercy—and in the end, it will pitch forward and measure its length on eternity’s floor. Time, our intended atmosphere. Time, the air we were previously too weak to breathe. Time, the life-enhancer. As measured by our lives, it will be qualitative, not quantitative: Time, the stuff through which we timelessly live.
Time will only have meaning when we fill it—use it to hold the pieces of our lives. “Seventy years” will become (ala Dante) “the time I spent in the woods.” “Ten years” will be “when I explored that hilltop.” If we notice time at all.
If we stop and stare at a child’s game for seven years in order to really see it, I wonder if we will even know it.*
* George MacDonald presents this scene in a paragraph of his beautiful short story, “The Golden Key.”