A Sunday Reflection on Time I
Bill Long 11/23/08
Submitting to Time, Cheating Time, Time to Love...
Sundays have always been a sort of "time outside of time" for me. I grew up in New England in the 1950s, when the "blue laws" of an earlier day were still in force. All businesses were closed on Sundays; even baseball games that started at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night could have no inning beginning after 11:59 p.m. [the game would then be postponed until Sunday afternoon]. So, I caught the notion early that Sundays were special days, different from all the rest of the week. The primary ways it was special for our family in the 1950s and 1960s were through church attendance and Sunday dinner at the grandparents.
As I grew older and saw the massive triumph of "economic America" over the simpler version of the earlier capitalist model, I still felt in some way that my Sundays ought to have something "special" in them. But it was not clear to me in what this specialness consisted. Was church attendance so married to the specialness of the day that it was essential? I finally answered that question in the negative. Was Sunday dinner with extended family an essential part of that day? No, again. Well, what, then, was the thing that I was looking for in Sunday that set it apart from all the other days? I have decided that what Sunday provides for me is an opportunity to feel time in a different way and, thus, to reflect on the meaning of time in my life. I feel time in a different way on Sundays because, no matter how life is pressured, there simply are no demands on me for about six to ten hours on each Sunday. Perhaps I have chosen life to be this way, but I think that, essentially, is what Sunday means for me--an instance when time is mine, to cherish or waste as I like. Nearly all things, from the paper to be written, or phone calls to be made, or emails to be returned, can wait until the rush of Sunday evening. I simply have the time on Sunday now to do with it what I desire. This essay talks about thoughts that coursed through my mind today as I thought about time (i.e., that was how I used my "free time" today!)--and encourages you to take the time to think about time...
What Is Time? Biblical and Augustine
The Bible is conscious of the passing of time, from the very first words of Gen. 1: "In the beginning..." The Psalmist connects the concept of time with trust in God. From Ps. 31:
"But I trust in you, O Lord;
I say, 'You are my God.'
My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persectuors" (Ps. 31:14-15).
If we are confident that our "times" are in God's hands, we are living a trusting existence, an existence not so determined by the frenetic pace and demands of others around us.
Augustine, the 4th-5th century Church Father, had precious words to say about time in the Confessions. In Book 11 of that work, when talking about God's creation of the world, he muses:
"At no time, therefore, hadst Thou not made anything, because Thou hads't made time itself. And no times are co-eternal with Thee, because Thou remainest for ever; but should these continue, they would not be times. For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it? Who even in thought can comprehend it, even to the pronouncing of a word concerning it? But what in speaking do we refer more familiarly and knowingly than time? And certainly we understand when we speak of it; we understand also when we hear it spoken of by another. What, then is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.." Confessions XI.14.17.
That is, Augustine says, 'I know what time is, until you ask me, and then I don't really know what it is.' Yet time is the cornerstone of our lives, the basic world in which we live and move and have our being. If we couldn't use the words "before" or "after" in life, we would lose all our moorings. Indeed, for me, the learning to tell a convincing and clear chronological narrative of things, as diverse as human emotions or events leading to a lawsuit, is crucial. Yet, we don't know what time "is" in its nature.
As a result, we have jokes about time. Two of my favorites are... (1) On one occasion a person was telling a group of people that there likely would be a cataclysm destroying the earth within a billion years. After the talk a worried participant approached the speaker for clarification. The speaker repeated his point. The hearer heaved a sigh of relief, "Phew," she said, "I thought you said a million years." Or, (2) from this web site is the word of Prof. Max Tegmark of MIT:
"If you feel there aren't enough hours in a day, just wait. In a few hundred million years, tidal friction will have slowed Earth's rotation to make the day 25 hours long."
Isn't that a comforting solution? We actually will have an extra hour per day. But, the only problem is, we have to live an awfully long time to cash in on it....
In the next essay I will move to the ways I have considered time---