Friday, August 28, 2015


Time is a central part of our lives. In fact, it's so central that it's usually used as the prime definer or descriptor of what life is - our time here on earth, the time at our disposal, the times of our lives. Whatever we do, we do it within the allotted time frame; our works might live on through the millennia, but we only live through the decades. We are while there is still time; should time suddenly stop, so also would we.

It's easy to talk about time in terms of calendar time. Time usually occurs to us in terms of hours, days, weeks, months; usually with an implicit telos in mind. Now is now, deadline is then, and if I am to do all that there is to be done between now and then, I'd better begin now. Deadline is added to deadline, weeks to months, and before we know it a whole year has passed unnoticed. We run through the calendar, run through time; hopefully not towards the deadline.

Merely stating that time is identical with what the calendar has to say won't do, though. Calendars change over time, after all, and such changing foundations are not suitable for further eternities. One could argue that we - meaning "we who happen to be here and now when this discussion takes place" - should kickstart (pick your meaning) our own calendar to measure time, just because we can. I won't go into different calendar systems or details such as whether one should base it on the sun or the moon or the seasons, but merely mention them so as to encourage you to find your own time.

I want to repeat again that time and calendars are not identical. Calendars change over time, but time can't be said to do the same. We can reasonably assume that it is the same as it's always been, that is to say tautologically itself. That is to say, persist. We could say it's a kind of objective time - time in and of itself, the raw stuff of the universe to do with as we see fit. Time comes, time goes, and in either case it does not care about us or what we do; our lives, dreams thoughts, friendships, loves - everything disappears in the end, one at a time.

We all know that time doesn't always move at the same speed. Depending on mood, situation and circumstances, it can either fly or crawl. We've all been in situations where time seems to be off the clock and occasionally even move backwards, where syrup becomes the paradigmatic image of fastflowing progression. Conversely, we've all been in the opposite situation, where a day lasted but an instant of immense joy. There's, in other words, also a subjective time, moving in some sort of relation to its objective counterpart.

This relation is often expressed in clock time. If four hours passed by like an bullet train, they went by fast; if five minutes managed to encompass the entire rise and fall of the Roman Empire, they went slow. Clock time is the closest representation we have of objective time - the clock has no measure of care for what we do with our lives. The clock does its thing, second by second, whether you live or die; time passes, moment by moment, caring little for what transpires.

Clock time is not always a reliable basis for planning one's life. Instead, it might be better to plan according to biological time - that is to say, the time since you last slept, ate, took a dump, exerted ourselves, rested, etc. As physical and biological beings, there are certain things we have to do, and that we have to do with a certain regularity. Not necessarily with the regularity of a clock, but regularly enough that we ignore it at our own peril.

When confronted with the vastness and real age of the world, neither clock time nor biological time manages to grasp just how vast this vastness is. Thus, we grasp for geological time, where a life is but an instant and the gradual shifting of the landscape moves along to the tune of millions of years. The paradoxical thing about here is that there's both very much and very little going on at the same time. The moon as we know it today, for example, came forth during the passing of geological time, but most of it wasn't what we would consider action-packed. What we can see today came out of continual asteroid strikes shaping and reshaping the landscape; while violent, the process is such that between these strikes, there's a whole lot of nothing in particular going on. You can't live geological time in an interesting way, but you can summarize it ever more vividly.

Speaking of summarizing, media time is its own special form of time. Some news stories have a running time and longevity that go beyond what anyone would have ever suspected, while other news explodes into being and fades just as quickly. Trying to find a unit of measurement for media time is a tricky proposition, even though some have attempted a geographical route by measuring the kilometers of published text on a subject. Media time exist in a sublime space, such as that feeling present moments before the sub breaks the horizon a summer morn. Hard to define, but definitely there. There are times when everyone knows about something, and can refer to it without having to specify further, but at some point this knowledge passes from zeitgeist to past tense.

Many experience work time, and the many derivations thereof: full time, part time, flex time, overtime. (There's even the strange condition of zero-hour work time.) Work time consists of those hours where work is to be done, and can only be conceived in relation to free time, whence leisure shall commence. You can't have one without the other, by definition. If you only have free time and no work time, you're apparently not simply free, but unemployed. If you, conversely, have no free time but only work time, you're either in slavery or the kind of person who live solely through your work; in either case, work lasts for a lifetime.

Corporations - especially the larger ones - have their own perception of time. They have, through some accident of history, adopted a viewpoint that time progresses in a steady tri-monthly beat, where the most important thing is to have a bigger number than the last time around. Bigger is better, but no matter how big, next time needs to be even bigger. The restlessness expressed in the quarterly report time is profound, to be sure.

The political time is similar to the media time, but has more formal constraints, such as laws and constitutions and deep-rooted traditions. Depending on the form of government, these times can either be longer or shorter. Absolute monarchy defines political time in terms of generations (and in terms of biological time, such as when the health of the kingdom is synonymous with the health of the body of the monarch). Representative democracies, on the other hand, count in terms of election cycles. Political time not only defines how long someone holds the reins of power, but also how long certain questions are up for debate. Certain questions can stick around for the longest time, while others fade with quickness; some rulers stick around for years and years, while others are quickly dethroned. Just as with media time, these things are hard to predict.

Rhetoricians use a term for the most appropriate time - kairos. Kairos is that perfect moment when one can deliver the perfect answer, when the punchline is at its peak punch. Usually, we only realize what this line would be long after the moment has passed, and subsequently express the sentiment that - if only we'd said that instead! We now know the best of all possible answers, but alas, the moment has passed. But, have faith. There will be more perfect moments, and if you keep your eyes open you'll see them coming.

Speaking of appropriate times, this seems to be a good time to end. Whether I succeeded in my standing ambition to keep my posts interesting, entertaining and educative is an open question, and as the poets affirm, something only time will tell. -

Originally published February 18, 2010

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