We enter this world without a sense of what it means to exist in time. For an infant, there is no separation between one moment and the next, no stopping and no starting, no beginning and no end, just the undifferentiated flow of experience. But somehow, as our minds adapt and morph in resonance with the world, we become capable of perceiving time, and of locating ourselves within it.
We change, yet somehow we are the same person. This paradox is central to obscure, pedantic philosophical debates—for example, between ‘perdurantism,’ which takes the position that individuals are made up of many different temporal parts (sort of like a 4D earthworm that transcends time with different segments of its body located in different spatiotemporal regions), and ‘endurantism’ which views individuals as being wholly present at every moment of their existence. It is also at the heart of much deeper questions from which there is no escape as a human being: free will, being-in-the-world, creativity, ethics, to name a few.
As that infant develops, her initial ways of making contact with time will be coarse and rudimentary. The first of many distinctions she makes will simply be “now” versus “not now.” At this stage, she may become confused when her parents tell her something ceased to happen “last week” or will not happen “until tomorrow.” She may even ask them whether it is tomorrow yet.
As the months and years go by, she will come to believe that time is linked to specific actions or events. There is “wake up time” and “bedtime” and “dinner time” and “playtime” and “naptime” and “summertime” and possibly “Christmastime” or a different holiday-time. No longer does she live in a world without stopping and starting; she is now in a world where specific periods of time are ordained—by the Sun and Moon, by Mom and Dad, or by an Almighty Creator, or by all of them? Regardless, “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Her job will eventually become to prepare for those seasons, to take full advantage of them when they arrive, and not to squander them.
But shouldn’t she have the freedom to say how the moments of her life that pass so quickly ought to be used? As this increasingly becomes a concern, she will come to see time as something to take ownership and control of. Quite suddenly, she may become alarmed by the discovery that she is in short supply of this resource, and that once she spends it, she can never get it back. Tick, tick, tick… In an attempt to master time and ensure every moment is used to its greatest effect, she is quite likely to become adept at scheduling and planning. Viewing time as a straight line, she will begin to divide it into exact increments of various lengths. Where does she want to be in five years? Whatabout her friends—where are they likely to be when the same five years have passed? Are they the right friends for her to spend her time with? Time is money, after all. And the actions she takes today will most certainly have consequences in the future…so she must choose wisely.
At some point, such a drive to maximize the value of time and use it efficiently may come to feel like a cage. Simply put, she may feel an overwhelming desire to wake up, smell the roses, and meet people (and the whole world) fully in each moment. If this happens, she might become more open to experiencing these moments as special, specific, indivisible, and not-quite-measureable—in ways she had never imagined. And although she may not be able to spell out the mathematical proofs that Einstein discovered in 1905, she will come to intuit (in a certain sense anyway) that time is suspect, that it is relative, and not the same for everyone. Our experience of time, and of our being within it, depends on our frame of reference. Hence, our time (our history) is unique to us, and depends on the specific context of our lives. Quite importantly, if she reaches such a stage in her life, she will almost certainly bristle against her previously held notion that time is something to be sold or maximized. No, it is something to savor, to delight in, and to relish.
If she continues to develop past this point (which few people do), she will experience the biggest shift in how time occurs for her yet. She may become fascinated and lit up as she contemplates her actions and her life in relationship to the unfolding of time—not necessarily the linear unfolding she once imagined, but rather a wave-like rippling and spiraling of history—an unfolding that she both influences and is influenced by. The very idea of evolution—of being and becoming—might just blow the lid off her mind and heart. Through her actions, she will embrace and embody paradoxes like the one we discussed earlier, and this will profoundly enrich every aspect of her life (and quite possibly the lives of people around her). At this stage, she will see the truth of all the previous ways she has experienced herself moving through time, and she will integrate them in a unique and potent way. Yes, it’s true: now is the only time we have. Yes, it’s true, this season has been given to us for a purpose. Yes, we can achieve mastery over time and liberate ourselves in the process. And yes, an even deeper liberation is possible when we inhabit our unique histories as indivisible wholes.
Importantly, as she occupies this unique vantage point, she will come to recognize that because history is an arc, actions that alter the future also influence the past. She will likely become increasingly interested in the possibility of bending that historical arc, and in the significance of her existence in the face of children who have not yet been born.
Indeed, time may be nothing more than a see-through mirror, an illusion, an infinite kaleidoscopic arising of cloud-like structures that blend into and out of each other. We are embedded in a flowing fountain of past\present\future, and it is embedded in us, for now. And in this moment, the entire history of all that has ever existed, and all that will exist in the future, is present.