Assorted Reflections on the Nature and Mystery of Time

A few experiences this week got me thinking about time.  Someone wiser than me once compared thinking about time to a fish thinking about water:  as an inescapable part of our surroundings, it seems impossible to study it because we cannot step outside of it.  Yet, mysteriously, we can and have pondered time’s nature, though doing so feels strange (If you’ve never given much thought to the nature of time, start by trying to define what it is.  Hard to do, isn’t it?).

Managing Time –

Watching the World Cup the past two weeks got me thinking about how we manage time and about differences in cultural expectations of our ability to control it.  I would not describe myself as a soccer fan.  I only watch it intentionally during the World Cup, and only this year have I really begun to appreciated it.  One observation that has struck me this year is how imprecise the clock management is.  The game (or match?) clock runs continuously from the beginning, not stopping for injuries, timeouts, commercials, changes of possession, etc., and then additional time is added at the end to compensate for any delays (due just to injury?) at the end (clearly I do not have a clear grasp of the rules).  This extra time is added by whole numbers to the minute.  Contrast that with major sports of an American origin that are governed by a clock:  basketball and football.  In these sports, time is managed to a fraction of a second.  You have probably seen referees add or take away tenths of seconds to a play clock, such as when a ball goes out of bounds, by watching a replay to determine exactly when the ball crossed the in-bounds line.  At the end of games, coaches often must manage the time they use on offense down to the second to give their teams a chance to win.

Of course, this variability in degree of precision of time management is consistent with the nature of the contests.  Whereas the outcome of basketball or football games can be determined in just a fraction of a second, meaningful soccer plays take much longer to develop.  But I wonder what the fundamental differences in the structure of these sports that give rise to these varying effects of time say about the cultures in which they originated and evolved?  One of the most striking differences between cultures I have experienced while being overseas (Eastern Europe and East Asia) is the way time flows and is allocated.  I noticed that as an American I managed my personal time much more precisely (scheduling appointments and tasks in much shorter increments, for example) than people I met in these cultures.  I believe this same difference is reflected in these sports.  To offer a simple generalization, it seems that in Western culture we have a much greater sense of control over time – a greater confidence that we can manipulate it to accomplish our goals.

Valuing Time

A second experience of time this week was viewing the new Tom Cruise film The Edge of Tomorrow.  I was drawn to it by its intriguing official synopsis:

The epic action of “Edge of Tomorrow” unfolds in a near future in which an alien race has hit the Earth in an unrelenting assault, unbeatable by any military unit in the world. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop-forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying again…and again. But with each battle, Cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill…

This film profoundly disorients the audience by toying with our fundamental notions of time. Every time the main character dies, he wakes up in the exact same spot in the story, which then repeats exactly as it was before except for the actions he takes.  Sometimes he makes it further into to the narrative, other times he dies sooner, but each time he dies, he starts again from the same place.  This re-boot happens so many times that one eventually loses count.  Eventually, for any given new scene the audience does not know whether Major Cage has been here already, or whether he is having is first experience of it.  The closest analogy to this experience is an action video game where upon dying, the character you control starts again from the same place.  If you are paying attention to the patterns of the game, you will know it well enough to avoid the same mistakes, and with each ‘death’ progress closer to winning the game.

One reason why this experience is so disorienting is that time does not work in such a manner for us.  There is a permanent quality to our experience of the elapsing of time (lost time cannot be regained; it is gone forever) that this narrative contradicts.  We cannot go back and undo the past.  There are no repeats, no go-backs, no extra lives.  This quality is what makes time precious.

I am concerned about the ways our society tries to deny this quality of time.  As an educator, I have observed the effects on students of shielding them from the harsh reality of time.  Schools in America today commonly have policies that allow students to artificially erase their pasts.  These include allowing students to re-take tests until they pass them, do extra work to make up zeroes on assignments they did not complete, drop their lowest test grades.  Such policies create an environment in which students believe that how they spend their time matters very little because they will be allowed to undo its consequences.  Maybe this feels right to students because it mirrors a video game! Overall, I believe these policies and practices contribute to a devaluing of time in education, and thus in our society as a whole.

Integrating Time

My last experience this week that catalyzed reflection on time was with family.  While my sister was visiting from out of town, we decided to visit some of the neighborhoods we lived in as children.  In one of these neighborhoods, there was a convenient store run by Asian immigrants that we used to walk to for snacks and other treats.  I convinced my dad to stop there to buy some drinks.  We wondered whether the same people ran it almost 30 years later.  I approached an elderly Asian gentleman working at the register saying that I often came there as a kid.  He said that he was there back then, having owned the business for 33 years.  When my dad approached, the owner said that he remembered my dad being a regular customer.  This not only surprised my dad, it made his day!  He couldn’t stop expressing his amazement and pleasure in this stranger remembering him from 30 years ago.  It was the highlight of his trip down memory lane.

Don’t we all love to be remembered?  I supposed it is a way of being honored when we are remembered, even in simple ways by seemingly insignificant people.  Perhaps this is why in the Old Testament the command to remember God and His past works is so frequent.

Also, when we are remembered, and when we remember others, this connects our past to the present in a way that adds meaning to our experiences.  In our live-in-the-moment culture, we increasingly experience life as a succession of disconnected moments, our present moment being dis-integrated from the past and the future.  Such disjointedness increases a sense of randomness in our experience that diminishes meaning.  We fine meaning when our past, present, and future are connected, integrated in patterned ways, the way a story would be patterned.

What insights would you add about the strange nature of time?

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