One of the most common fears that we harbour, as a generally (but justifiably) paranoid and terrified species, is the fear of death. The fear of our own mortality. It is really very depressing that no matter what you do, one day you will die.
This very argument has been used to justify living ‘as if there will be no tomorrow’. Technically, because of what tomorrow means, it never does arrive. It’s always going to come tomorrow, the tardy fool. But the thing with living as aforementioned is that in ways very significant to your own sense of time, tomorrow does arrive. I agree that this is a tad inconvenient. What can I say!
A physicist will tell you the correct definition of time, as will a philosopher. Indeed the latter may give you several, because discussing philosophy is equivalent to a rich man talking about poverty: the poor have no time to think about it, obviously, because they’re trying to survive. Happily, philosophy even manages to at least partly explain what happiness itself is, but then that makes the philosophers analytical about their own bliss, and that makes them sad and that defeats the whole point, so they leave their large studies and go ride one of their horses around the grounds surrounding their manors.
Moving on from philosophy, which according to its meaning one can never truly do, let’s talk about time again. The idiotic thing about time is that it’s an alpha personality. Oh wait, I must explain what that means.
According to some dubious sources I’ve come across, there are essentially three types of people. Alphas tend to have a complex about winning and being the best and racing along and so forth. Betas are more laid back. Sure they like winning, but, in the words of one of the said sources, they like to stop to smell the flowers every so often. Gammas, well, to continue the analogy, they would probably just lay down next to the flowerbed and chill out; if the scent wafts over to them then all the better. Having just looked this matter up, I found some more questionable resources mentioning a bunch of other greek letter personalities (the gamma explanation doesn’t tally with mine either) which I won’t get into, because ridiculing those is a matter for another time. Heh. Time.
The point is, time ain’t gonna stop for no flowers. It literally causes the flowers to wither. That is not a happy thought.
There are two views of how to understand time. The first one is that time is some entity that keeps going on and on and in which stuff occurs (which Wikipedia calls Newtonian time) and the second one is that time isn’t really a thing, but an intellectual concept which we use to make sense of the, er, chronological order of things. I did say you can’t ever move on from philosophy. It shares this property with God (or gods) as well as idiocy. It’s omnipresent.
But perhaps the latter thought is the more utilitarian. We care about time in the way we perceive it. Only a handful of people care whether it is an entity or not. The rest of us just know that time doesn’t wait for anybody, that its passage is painfully relative, and that we, with our large brains, think in terms of time a lot.
A friend of mine, who incidentally has mystic powers, told me the other day about how it’s frightening that she called a movie that came out in 2016 a recent one, and then realised we’re nearly two years on from that time. It does seem like time sneaks up on us. She went on to relay to me a singular piece of information she had gained using said mystic powers, about how cats have no perception of time as a linear thing. What that means is that they don’t think about the past or the future because their brains don’t acknowledge those concepts. This, as I proceeded to point out, would make feline marital arguments quite civil as neither party would have any anecdotal mud to sling at the other. But this did lead me to wonder how terrifying it would be to an animal with good memory and the concept of valuing those recollections. I do not suppose any parent would be particularly chuffed if they forgot their child’s first words a few moments after the fact. Maybe the joy of tasting chocolate the first time every time would be nice. But then, if you didn’t know the joy already, how could you appreciate the repetition of the warm melting stuff spreading around your very brain? How could the parent know they missed anything if they couldn’t remember that their baby had already said something that sounded like ‘mama’ to them and only them?
That’s just it though, isn’t it. An amnesiac can’t despair at his lack of memory, that would be counterintuitive and quite a bit creepy. Memory and time then, are tied together in complicated ways. And none of us have an Alexandrian sword to cut through the knot and conquer either of the two.
Essentially what matters, and this is going to sound mighty arrogant, is how we perceive those things. And how we perceive those things is not fair. Take nostalgia for example. Granted, one can be forgiven for thinking about the good old days at say, the age of 85. But it really isn’t a good thing to be doing at 20.
If a solitary ray of dusty, wintry sunshine can remind me of that one summer day when I sat reading about two children first looking into a weird glade full of worlds; the feeling of complete freedom from worries, the very obvious fact that it was four o’clock on a Sunday; then what business do I have thinking about college assignments and the general drudgery that forms the bulk of a typical weekday.
It really is tempting to meander along the pathway of memory, because when we do, we seldom look around us. As we tread the already compacted dirt of the un-creatively named Memory Lane, we are unaware of this strange phenomenon, the way doesn’t seem any darker, but the trees are certainly closing in, and they’re not friendly Ents either. This urge to go exploring our own murky minds often strikes when we are alone, or lonely, or both. Then, it is a dark landscape and a dim, contemplative light as you plod along, stopping now and then to watch as something remarkable happens along the side of the road. All the while the trees grow closer together. You remain placid though because you cannot afford to be otherwise. Your own mind doesn’t need to know you’re afraid or agitated.
As you go farther and farther in, thoughts get jumbled up, and you can see darkness at the end of the tunnel of trees. That is not an ominous darkness, but a blissful one, of forgetfulness. Time doesn’t matter here because it doesn’t exist here. It is comforting somehow, like sleep. But you can’t go there, because like a clichéd fairy tale forest, you won’t ever get out. When you turn back because you have a real life, you step quicker because it feels like the path is tilting backward and it’s an uphill climb back. This is just you resisting the urge to settle into the comfort of recollection. This is natural.
When you do eventually break clear of the forest, the trees still lean toward you in the style of Mirkwood, but you wake without ever having been asleep, and you realise that time, that wretched thing that’s supposed to heal you and then kill you, hasn’t passed while you were out in Grimm’s version of your brain.
I did say one fine day over a cup of coffee that our minds do not seem to be designed to be able to completely understand the nature of time. Maybe it is a disembodied, cruel wit. Maybe it can’t help its own passage because it probably isn’t sentient, now is it. Maybe it needs to catch a train or something. We all know how that feels.
But perhaps it is what that second opinion says it is, just an illusion, just something our minds make up so that we can make sense of things in a way conducive to comfort. This frees up the possibility that the dark place in our mind may just be our true home, heaven, where we travel back to that lazy Sunday afternoon, blissful in the knowledge that maybe the person we are seeing is our own past selves, but in that moment, we don’t know who we will become because time does not pass. The question that often bothers us in such circumstances is whether it is all real or just in our heads.
As a white-bearded man once told a thin, bespectacled boy as they both sat in a place that was neither Here nor There, “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”
I cannot put it any better.
Bruhad Dave is a Zoology student at St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad.
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