Time is etched into our culture. It is reflected in our language—losing time, wasting time, saving time and serving time are some examples. When someone breaches the law we punish them by confining them for a period of time, sometimes for life. Lawyer bill clients according to the time spent—another indication that time and money are things woven together. You can go out in a blaze of glory like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Jim Morrison—“no one gets out of here alive”—or you can live a long, flat and anonymous life that doesn’t leave a ripple. A meaningful life is more than the sum total of the years lived and isn’t necessarily one that leaves a legacy beyond immediate family and friends.
We all have this in common—you and I have an expiry date like the one on that bottle aspirin above the bathroom basin. Take out the bottle and look at it. You know when to throw it away. That information is withheld from you unless you face execution or suicide. In the great Hindu legends time passes through cycles. One day of Brahma is 4,320 million earth years. Ancient Egyptian mythology also was based on cycles of time. The Western culture of time is expressed in this passage:
For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend. A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.
We are born into a culture that wires our perception to time. No culture can avoid the universal fate of all people whose duration—short, medium or long, comes to an end. A great deal of literature and crime fiction revolves around the unfolding of the present, linking it to the past as something important to determining our future fate. Poets, playwrights, novelists and songwriters can compress, expand, or reverse its direction, distort the passage of time for dramatic effect. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey are epic journeys through time cycles.
Our endless fascination with time is reflected in the movies. When we watch a movie that last 120 minutes a number of lifetimes can unfold. Sometimes time moves in a backward direction like in Benjamin Button and sometimes time is on auto-repeat with each day the same as the day before day as in Ground Hog Day. Movies can fulfill a longing to go physically back in time such as Field of Dreams, Somewhere in Time, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Movies also transport us to the distant future like in Back to the Future, The Terminator, and The Planet of the Apes.
When you have some spare time, here is a list of the best 50 time travel movies.
These movies indicate that we just can’t get enough entertainment that transports us to time ports that reality denies us.
Once we close a book or leave the cinema, we are back to our time reality—where time hovers like a drone with a sealed order to strike and you are the target. You live in that crosshairs, waiting. That’s pretty morbid, you say and you’d be right. We avoid thinking about that time for that very reason—it gives us an uneasy feeling. Our lives are lived in time. In the scheme of things, the time of any mortal life is short. If you think about four letter words—time ought to be at the top of any list. An insult or obscenity may hurt sensibility. But time, in the end, destroys sensibility and the body housing it.
People escape in all kinds of ways. Into booze, religion, sex and rock ‘n roll, books, opera, dance, and travel. Billionaire or pauper, time doesn’t care anymore than if you were famous, popular, loved, adored or made the planet a better place. You still are axed. With time, there is no escape. At some point in your life, you reconcile yourself to the reality that time existed before you were born and will continue to exist after your death. In between those bookends of time is where you are. Now. At this minute. Reading these words. Where we are sharing time in the land of thoughts.
Time and destiny are tightly woven into our lives. In the previous two weeks I’ve discussed the ideas of disruption and discontinuity. Duration fits within this context as both of these earlier concepts assume the passage of time. Time is also part of the equation that includes space.
Each week there are new discoveries about exoplanets in our own galaxy—perhaps 40 billions such planets. The problem is one of distance. It takes time to travel in space. The Economist recently ran an article about traveling in space. If earth were the size of a grain of sand, the moon is 3cm away, the sun 12 meters away, and Alpha Centauri B is 4.4 light years away or 3,200 kilometers away from our grain of sand planet. With our current technology the travel time to Alpha Centauri B clocks in at 75,000 earth years. Remember this alien planet is, in the scheme of things, very close to our planet. Assuming a life expectancy of 75 years, that would take 1,000 live times.
Barring a time-bending new technology, our life spans never evolved for the time scales required for space exploration. Not that it doesn’t stop us from dreaming of the possibility or reading science fiction premised technology that overcomes the impossibility of limited lives taking very long journeys. As Douglas Adams famously wrote, space is very, very big. This is an understatement given our galaxy is 100,000 light years across and there are billions of galaxies. And galaxies and other matter are 5% icing spread on the 95% of a dark cake.
Each time I start planning a new novel, I must decide ‘when’ it starts. Without a time anchor the suspense of a crime novel falls to piece. The same with the mystery elements which evolve through time, the puzzle pieces are time envelopes we open to better understand the past, the character’s reactions, and allows us to guess what possibilities will next follow. In The Marriage Tree, the latest Calvino novel, the time is around the Songkran Festival, which falls in April each year. If you know something about Thai culture, weather, history and language this piece of information is valuable. It immediately allows you mental image of Bangkok around this time. The novel may confirm your own experience of how people move in and out of the city during this important Thai holiday. For those who have experienced April and Songkran as a cultural/time unity, the novel will have added meaning.
We are drawn to narratives where time ‘flows’. In a flashback, the author takes us back in time. A lot of readers don’t like flashbacks. Literary time travel is counterintuitive. We are stuck in the moment, and each moment succeeds the next. There is, in life, no returning to a past moment except as a matter of memory. That is time in the ‘head’ or, if you will, ‘time in a bottle’ as it is imagined rather than experienced in reality of the moment.
Some novels offer a long time frame, others a vastly reduced time scale. The narrative may occur over many centuries, years, months, weeks or days. Or in the case of Ulysses the entire novel may be confined to a single a 24-hour period. Crime fiction usually selects a limited time frame of months or weeks. Science fiction takes on the multiple century sagas such as Issac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy.
We are time contemporaries. Our lives overlap in time. The fact that we share the same time is significant. We think about Socrates or Plato is a quite different way, or someone we imagine will live two hundred years from now. People who exist outside of our time are more alien and foreign to us that any small Amazon tribe living like hunter gathers.
We know people who choose to live in the past. For them what is for most are a past that no longer exists is largely irrelevant in light of legacy mentality, a thought process that ‘glorifies’ the achievements, wisdom, civility and morality of the past. The myth-making is inevitably backward looking. The obvious emotional attraction is the promise of a fixed, immutable, comforting boat to ride through the chaotic, uncertain and ambiguous present. Those who live in the ‘future’, discounting the present, climb aboard a boat ride on a sea of speculation. We are tempted to wonder about the fate and state of humanity in the deep future, one we will never see. We make up stories to satisfy that urge. All of these time-based emotions are fueled by our existential anxiety. Personal extinction is about as personal as it gets.
We can’t stop time. The reality is we exist moment to moment. Our attempts to escape into the past or the future are futile. Our best remaining option is to find ways to slow down our sense of how time passes as a portal to greater life satisfaction.
What makes time speed up or slow down? When you are young, time seems to move slowly. The endless summer days of youth are fondly remember when by middle age that slow boat to China becomes a Japanese bullet-train as we feel that the days are flying past our window at an accelerated rate. One theory is novelty slows down our perception of time flowing. The more we notice, the more we find that is new, slows us down. For a child everything is new, vivid, revealing a new color, sound, smell or taste. By the time that you reach middle age, most of your senses have gone on to automatic pilot. Your mind no longer needs to sort out the world around you. You are convinced you know your word. You are an expert at your work and nothing surprises you. You’ve seen it all before. The loss of a sense of novelty is the best way to stomp on the time accelerator. Before you know, by old age time is passing at a warp speed.
How our brain is structured over time influences our time perception.
“Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently ‘switched on’. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time. Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time — if they see or hear something once they remember it. But as we progress towards the later teenage years the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.”
If you want to slow down time, do something new and novel. Learn a language, or a musical instrument, or read in a number of different fiction and non-fiction areas. Improvisation should be a life-long habit. It increases acetylcholine levels, and those are chemical actors that recreate that inner child who started out improvising with a totally unknown world. Don’t go onto automatic pilot where you simply are repeating patterns or cycles in your work, life and community of friends. You have a choice about how you experience time by yourself and with others, make it slow down, drink it in, and prolong it with novelty and wonder. We can choose to occupy a time to love or a time to hate, or a time to cry or a time to laugh. And if enough of us find the time to embrace and the time to search, our passing through time has the possibility of rewarding us with hope.