Friday, June 11, 2010

A thought on time

Usually, I think about time the way everyone else thinks about it. Right now I'm eating. 30 minutes ago I was urinating. Yesterday I went to class. Three weeks ago I was in Germany. Six months ago I was graduating. A year ago I was doing an internship in Washington. Linear. The present moment is a dot on a timeline, moving from left to right, from the direction of the past to the direction of the future. Things that happened yesterday are closer to the present than things that happened a week ago.

Then other times I have a different idea of time. All points in the past and the future are equally distant from the present. The picture of this would be a circle with its centerpoint. The centerpoint is the present, the ring is my past and future. They never touch, yet clearly the present resides within that ring, never to escape, never to get any closer or farther away. Why does this thought come to me? Because I often reflect on things in the past, and they all seem to just clump together at times. Really, what is the difference between something that happened a year ago and something that happened two years ago? It's gone now, it already happened. Things can be occurring, or they can not be occurring. Everything not occurring is past or future (or fantasy). And contemplating the future is much more what triggers this thought in me than contemplating the past.

For example, I think about how things were my last semester of college. I was well aware that I would leave Florida on a certain date, go visit my brother on a certain date, go back to Florida, go to Switzerland, take visits in Europe, make visits in Europe. Yet they all seemed equally far away -- that is to say they weren't happening at present. Likewise, while I was experiencing them, I felt a keen awareness that soon they would cease to occur and be part of the past, and then it would be like no time had passed at all between when I was in my apartment anticipating my journey and when I was in my bed reflecting on it. Twinkle, snap, flash, and six months are gone. Friends would say to me, "I'll miss you! I hope you arrive well! I'll see you in __ weeks/months!" I started replying, "I'm already there, and we're already seeing each other again," because I knew that when I arrived and when I saw them again, it would be like no time had passed. Because there is only the present.

Other times, I think this is a silly concept. Of course time is linear. Yesterday is closer than three weeks ago. To prove it, I can much more easily detail what exactly I did and thought yesterday than what I did and thought three Sundays ago. I'm sure I've forgotten entire days and weeks, maybe even months of my life. I can't imagine how much data I've lost; giant holes in my mnemonic timeline, knowing generally the course of things and forgetting every detail, every conversation, every emotion and insight that felt so meaningful at the time.

But then there are days that I do remember, conversations and feelings I recall with great clarity. Even certain moments of absolutely no significance other than the fact that I told myself, "I'll probably forget about this in a few weeks." I never forgot them, because I always thought about forgetting them. Simple images -- sitting in front of the television screen in my aunt Breda's house in Ireland, seeing some shirtless farmers working with hay from the train in Bavaria, jumping into my bunkbed with my pajamas on as a four-year-old. And of course, all those memories of actually significant events. Some things that happened many years ago feel much closer and fresher than things that happened yesterday. So the line is bent, broken, diced into little points and scattered like water vapor in a cloud. And then my concept of time looks like the picture below on the right.

There in the middle is the present, and around it is the cloud of memories, the cloud of anticipation, the cloud comprising all the points of time and experience, real and imagined. Some are so very close to touching the present, you can't even see the cracks between them. And some are so far on the periphery, so far from the present, that they fade into obscurity and cannot be distinguished from the blankness; they might as well never have happened, for all their bearing on the present. And yet the most beautiful thing of all is that if you stare quite hard and close at the point in the middle, you will see that the shades of grey around it fade away. If you concentrate hard enough on the present, that cloud of time around it will disappear. And perhaps that's something to consider.

This last model/graphic is intriguing for me. It tells me time, as humans experience it, is not linear, but it does exist. It exists because our pasts and futures influence us. And yet the present is all that matters. Or at least it can be, if you focus on it.

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