Salvador Dali- The Persistence of Memory
Happy New Year!
What was 2020 like for you? Do I need to ask?! What will 2021 bring? Of course we are all hoping 2020 will be ‘better’, and many of us are thinking that ‘things can’t get any worse’, but is this helpful? Most of the people I know have enough food and shelter to be comfortable, and most of us remain healthy, so what is our baseline? Things have been a lot, lot worse - for other nations but for us here too not so very long ago.
What is a ‘year’ anyway? I heard somewhere that 2020 is now at ‘106%’ which I thought was quite interesting. We like to compartment and label years: ‘that was a good year’, ‘that was a disappointing / difficult’ year, but years, like time itself, are an artificial construct. We humans measure time in years, months, days, minutes, seconds. We make diaries and calendars, and of course we need to organise our lives. But a day is just the Earth making one revolution about its axis, a year is just one turn around the Sun (and even then, not quite that). The months are based on the phases of the Moon, which just happens to orbit the Earth in about 27 Earth revolutions. The seasons are based on the angle we are tilted towards the Sun. The New Year is just the point in our revolution where we (in the northern hemisphere), roughly, are tipped away from the Sun the most. So called ‘primitive’ peoples measured time by these celestial happenings. And until very recently clocks were a luxury; we didn’t regularise time here in the UK until railways made it essential to coordinate time between the different regions (the Sun rises 20 minutes later in Pembrokeshire than it does in Suffolk).
If we were not human how would we view time? A mountain would measure its lifespan in millions of years, an oak tree in centuries, a mayfly in seconds. Time is relative, Einstein taught us this.
If you travel around the Earth very fast with a clock it will be microseconds further on than the one you left behind. And because of the slowing effect of gravity on time, for every foot above ground they are someone ages about 90 billionths of a second faster over a lifetime. We also know that time can feel like it’s passing slowly or quickly. It is often said that the years go by faster the older you get, and when we are waiting for a bus the time can go very slowly, but once distracted it can fly by. A bit like when we are practicing meditation. Time is certainly something we have been forced to take different views on over these last 10 months, with deadlines postponed and events cancelled, and it may pass very slowly indeed over the next few weeks. The only thing we can be sure of is that we cannot travel in any real sense to previous or future moments. The present moment is the only one we can experience, even if we are thinking about the past or the future.
Western cultures tend to view time as linear, with a definitive beginning and end - our life, the Universe- and we feel that time is limited in supply, so we structure our lives with milestones and deadlines. (Interestingly the word ‘deadline’ originates from the perimeter trench dug around American Civil War prison camps, the crossing of which had fatal consequences). For us failure to meet a deadline is often interpreted as having a poor work ethic or a sign of incompetence but in some other cultures, where time is perceived not in linear terms but as cyclical and endless, more importance is placed on doing things right and maintaining harmony, rather than worrying about getting things done “on time.” In India, for example, deadlines can be viewed as “targets” to be met in the context of many competing tasks and priorities and what effect any delay would have on a particular relationship.
It’s a bit like the difference between being on a path crossing a field and moving around it in a less predictable, definable way. But whether we are on the linear path, taking one step at a time towards our destination, or moving around the field, observing time around us, exploring its edges, its folds, time for all of us is arising in this particular moment. We can only let it go - to be replaced by the next moment and the next.