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Opinion Column
For the week of February 28 through March 6, 2001

The chameleon nature 
of time

In case you are wondering—and you probably aren’t—today is Feb. 28, 2001. Which means that the basic means for tracking time, our calendar, is running about six hours fast.

This fact seems remarkable to me only because we live in an increasingly precise and technological era, in which most of us are consumed by time. The discrepancy is a result of the astronomical year—the time it takes the earth to circle the sun—being 365.242 days long, about a quarter day longer than our calendar year. Hence, every four years we tack a day on to our calendar to keep the records straight. It seems a sloppy system, but one that works.

I have long been fascinated by this—most likely because I can never seem to get a clear sense of it. Thinking about time is akin to trying to run one’s fingers through the silky colors of a rainbow—the closer one gets to the swath of color, the more it recedes into the middle distance.

This may be partly due to time’s chameleon nature. It takes on new shapes and meanings every moment through life. It can move faster than memory or slower than one’s breath, it can be an enemy or an ally.

Ultimately, time and our perception of it determines our conscious experience.

As best as we can determine from historical evidence, time has been formally measured for the last 6000 years. Given that the universe is roughly 1.5 x 1010 years old, we haven’t been at it very long.

The first 365 day calendar was devised by the Egyptians. It was based on the cyclical appearance of the star Canis Major, which roughly coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile.

Clocks, a further refinement of measuring time, first appeared in the Middle East in the form of obelisks around 3500 B.C. Since then we have used water, sand, pendulums, quartz crystals and now the natural, resonant frequencies of elements to get an ever more accurate and objective portrait of this, ultimately, subjective quantity.

I think most people in modern society are acutely aware of the press of time, perhaps because of our ever more precise measure of it. For better or worse, we are attempting to do more with our time on earth. I used to think this was a bad habit of ours, but, as he often does, my 2-year-old son changed my perspective.

Come bedtime, the boy will come up with 8000 different things he needs to do or tell me before surrendering nine hours of his life to sleep. His resistance to sleep used to distress me until I contemplated the converse situation—beaten down adults who can hardly wait to sleep in the hope of escaping their woes or boredom for a while. To be excited about every possible instant that might unfold is a quality we tend to misplace from time to time.

And now, perhaps because of my family, I feel panicked when I sense time slipping through my hands—not the passing of time with experience—but time that is really and truly wasted. This is time that, as it is whisking by, you realize you are learning nothing, you are not with your loved ones, you are not relaxing or having fun, you are simply listening to the wretched ticks of some giant clock.

What I find most intriguing about time is that how one perceives it has profound philosophical and religious implications. Some may argue that it works the other way—that philosophical and religious perspectives determine one’s view of time. I would offer that time is a much more fundamental quantity. Philosophy and religion are human intellectual constructs—later arrivals to the scheme of the universe—whereas time, along with the three dimensions of space, are the bricks and mortar of reality.

I often wonder how other people perceive time. Most people in the Western world tend to a linear vision, one that implies a beginning and an end. If time has a beginning and an end, it would suggest that some greater being outside of time had to create it. The beliefs and practices of Judaism, Christianity and Islam generally follow from such a perception. Existence consists of living within time on earth followed by some sort of existence outside of time. How exactly we bridge the discontinuity between the two is a matter of debate.

Another perspective is that time is cyclical, in other words, has no beginning or end and, thus, has always existed. The natural world and all of its manifestations of cycles lend credence to this view. A religion representative of such a view of time is Buddhism. Life as a Buddhist knows it consists of an endless cycle of birth and rebirth in other forms. The ultimate goal of a Buddhist is to escape the cycle and exist in a state of Nirvana, which coincidentally exists outside of time.

Both linear and cyclic views include an assumption that after our life in time we somehow move to a form of existence out of time or beyond it, whether it be Heaven, Hell or Nirvana.

There is still another possibility: that our lives on earth may be grand and meaningful but without a second act. For all we know, the entire history of the universe might be little more than a random—and so timeless—flash of existence in an infinite scheme of non-existence. It is, in one sense, a much bleaker thought. In another, the singularity and brevity of life becomes a source of its beauty and significance.

Just to confuse things a little more, there is the perhaps fanciful idea of Jorges Luis Borges. In one of his wonderful short stories, Borges posits the idea that all of us and our experiences in time are merely figments of a greater being’s imagination, players in a long dream. And sooner or later, this big dreamer will wake up.

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