Monday, July 5, 2010

What Time is it?

Most of us older people reminisce a lot. We like to tell ourselves good versions of the stories of our lives. But do we get the stories right or do we tend to fictionalize the past in a kind of benign self-deception? That is a deep question, but I want to tackle it here.

St. Augustine characterized time this way: the past is just a present memory and the future is merely a present expectation. If we accept that view of time, all we have is the now. But as soon as the word “now” is out of our mouths, it is already in the past. So time must be a durational, fluid entity that our finite minds simply cannot comprehend. For example, if we try to think of the beginning of all things, or the end of time, our minds go numb. Even the holy men of old resorted to elaborate metaphorical expressions to cope with the complexity of time.

But time does not always seem so complicated to us. I know what it is until someone asks me. When someone does ask me, though, I don’t know how to answer. Oh, I can quote Aristotle: “time is the measurement of motion,” and explain that clocks and calendars measure the motions taking place in our solar system. But I know that my state of consciousness at, say, 4 p.m. has nothing to do with clocks and calendars. My sense of time is not related to universal motion and, furthermore, it is immeasurable.

Sometimes entire segments of our seemingly forgotten past are recalled to our consciousness in an instant, even though the recollection does not seem momentary. For example, when I was a pre-schooler, my aunt used to keep me while Mother worked. At my nap time, Aunt Sarah always turned on the radio to listen to her soap opera. So daily, I went to sleep hearing organ music with a very wide vibrato, the theme song of the program. Now, whenever I hear such music—which thankfully is rare—I feel very drowsy and catch glimpses of the old day bed and the green wallpaper of my childhood. This phenomenon often happens not only when we hear familiar sounds, but also when we smell certain memorable odors or when we experience other sensations similar to those we have had in the past. Thus, our inner sense of time is compacted and recorded to be released involuntarily when we least expect it—nothing we ever experience is lost.

The famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that everything takes on pleasing form in the eyes of memory. Maybe there is within us some healing agent that preserves the good and banishes the bad—or at least modifies it so we can continue to live with ourselves. Time will tell. Our minds are good managers. Whatever time is, we accept it along with the consequences of being alive on the planet, allowing some benign subliminal agent to monitor a myriad of sensations. As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”

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